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DDA recommends exceptions for East Decatur Station project

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DDA recommends exceptions for East Decatur Station project

Decatur City Hall. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Cathi Harris, contributor 

Decatur, GA — The Decatur Downtown Development Authority (DDA) on Friday voted to recommend the city grant five exceptions to its Mixed-Use zoning district standards and the design standards of the Avondale LCI Master Plan for a proposed mixed-use project planned for the current East Decatur Station site.

The proposal had been tabled from the board’s August meeting over concerns about the impact of the requested height exemptions.

Real estate developer Northwood Ravin is under contract to purchase the property along East College Avenue between New Street and Sams Street to build a mixed-use retail, restaurant and residential complex. If completed, the development would contain an estimated 430 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

“The process with the county and [the Decatur] planning department has been, I think, a very productive and successful one,” Ben Yorker, Northwood’s vice president of development, told the DDA board Friday. “The project we are putting forward today attempts to reconcile comments we received from this group and various other stakeholders since last time.” 

At Friday’s meeting, the board voted to recommend approval of the following exceptions for the development:

– An exception to the 50-foot height standard for the residential units to be built along East College Avenue and along Sams Street. The standard requires buildings in that area to step back any floors higher than 50 feet from the front of the property. The exception allows just the corners of the buildings along College to be stepped back.

– An exception to the requirement that the ground level of the building facing College Avenue contain only commercial space. Because the state Department of Transportation controls College Avenue and will not allow any automobile entrances on College, Northwood believes that commercial storefronts that are mid-block in this location would not be viable, Yorker said.

Customers in the traffic-heavy corridor would have to circle around the block, find parking and then walk back to the middle of the block to access those storefronts. They plan to lease the same amount of commercial square footage, but push those sites to the corners of the development instead.

“We have found that businesses in those kinds of situations don’t do well,” he explained. “Instead, we would like to put our leasing office and some of the residential amenities in this location. There would be no residential units on the street level.”

– An exception to the on-street parallel parking requirements on a to-be-constructed extension of Freeman Street. (See note at the end of this article.)  The standard requires uninterrupted on-street parking, but landscape bump-outs will be needed to provide sufficient space for placement of extended ladder fire-fighting equipment in an emergency.

– A related exception to the street design requirements for Freeman Avenue to allow access by large fire-fighting equipment

– An exception to the size of the parking spaces in the interior parking deck. The city’s requirements state that spaces should be 9 feet by 20 feet, but the prefabricated components of standard parking decks are designed to support slightly smaller parking spaces that are 8.5 feet by 18 feet.

The requirements for stepping back the upper floors appeared to be the main sticking point holding back the board’s support for the development. 

The standard requiring any part of the building over 50 feet to be terraced back from the edge was intended to keep tall buildings–especially tall buildings facing each other–from overshadowing the street below, DDA Board Chair Chris Sciarrone noted during the meeting.

The developer had previously requested an exception that would allow them to construct all of the residential buildings with no step-back, noting that a similar exception was made for the Cortland development near the Avondale MARTA station.

In response to the board’s feedback in August, Northwood Ravin revised its plans to only ask for the exception for the buildings facing College Avenue and Sams Streets and then reduce the height of the buildings facing smaller Freeman Street and New Street corridors.

College Avenue is a four-lane state highway and the property on the other side of the street contains the CSX freight line. 

DDA board member Lisa Turner asked whether some amount of stepping back the front of the buildings on College could still occur, given that the height of the building is expected to be between 75 and 80 feet, about 30 feet over the 50-foot limit.

“I like this plan much better than the previous one,” she said during the meeting. “I am just wondering what kind of hardship it is putting you under in order to need the exception for College.”

Requiring that the higher levels be stepped back creates both a design issue and a financial hardship, Yorker clarified. “You get into issues with wood construction and with multifamily construction. When you reduce the upper levels, you are working  with less than ideal living space, once you take into account the space needed for bathrooms and kitchens … Then, those units don’t stack with the units below them.” 

The purchase of the property and the construction costs will also be very expensive, necessitating that they construct as many units as possible to meet their profit margin. During the discussion, Yorker estimated that the total cost to develop would be around $250,000 per housing unit.

The development is also subject to the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance and will reserve 10 percent of all unit types for renters with incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median income, probably about 40 units total, Yorker said.

Ultimately, the board and developer agreed on a compromise that granted the exception for the buildings with the condition that the corners of the buildings facing College be stepped back instead of the whole upper level.

The DDA board also agreed with Northwood Ravin’s assessment of the difficulty of placing commercial storefronts facing College Avenue in the middle of the block. 

“I know that when I pass the Willis [Avondale] I always feel like I can’t stop there to go in,” board member Tony Leung said. “I also think that could be a problem here.”

Although Northwood Ravin originally expected to reserve about 20 percent of the development’s units as affordable housing, the current plan reduces that percentage to the 10 required by Decatur’s inclusionary zoning requirement, Yorker told Decaturish after the meeting.

We were originally planning to pursue a tax abatement program that is predicated upon a percentage of 20 percent,” he explained. “However, we’ve decided to guide our request directly to the Decatur Development Authority in seeking an abatement program.  Our property is within their jurisdiction, after all, and they are best suited to weigh the potential costs and benefits.  We are seeking an abatement program that is predicated upon the required 10%, as we are unable to make the economics work at a greater percentage.”

The development size also increased from the originally planned 326 units to 430 units after they acquired more of the property than anticipated, Yorker said. The current owner originally planned to retain one parcel to sell for use as an office or hotel space, but were not able to do so in the current financial climate. Northwood Ravin is now planning to purchase and develop the entire property.

The DDA’s recommendation for approval will be forwarded to the Decatur City Commission, which will make the final decision about whether to grant the requested exceptions.

*Note: If the proposed development is constructed, Northwood Ravin would extend Freeman Street from its current endpoint at Sams Street through the new development to connect with Talley Street. This new street would then be deeded to the city as a public street.