By David Greenwald
The council, which prides itself on its ability to find consensus, found itself split on University Commons. In the initial round, they found themselves with only two supporters—Dan Carson and Gloria Partida. The other three believed that the project was too large in mass and scale.
Ultimately, Brett Lee proposed a five-story modified proposal. Even that could not bring Will Arnold and Lucas Frerichs over. The modified proposal passed on a rare 3-2 vote.
Even before the start of the meeting, there were several key concessions by the applicant. Affordable housing now had 13 studio units (five percent) for low-income households, and 13 two-bedroom units (another five percent) for middle-income households.
In addition, they offered to reconfigure the bed and bedroom mixes. They will now cluster the smaller units in one part of the project, offer options for either bed or unit leases depending on the preference of the tenants, affordable units will be unit leases and the number of four-
bedroom units will be limited to 45 percent of the project.
Gloria Partida said, “I was really taken aback at the hostility aimed at the students. I know that there is a long and deep-seated frustration at the university for increasing enrollment while not providing housing, but this is not the students’ fault.”
She was not alone in those concerns.
Lucas Frerichs pointed out that people said things “about how we shouldn’t give consideration to student opinions due to their transient nature—that is something that I find frankly appalling.”
Gloria Partida added, “That we don’t want (students) to live in our neighborhoods is unconscionable.”
She noted, “Having housing that appeals to students, will likely be filled with students.” She noted most importantly that “it will house 826 people.”
While most of the council pushed back against some of the anti-student rhetoric, three of the councilmembers simply believed that the project was “too big for the site.”
Councilmember Will Arnold went further than just size and massing, expressing concerns not only about size and scale, but also the lack of diversity of housing and affordability.
“Students need housing that they can afford,” he said. “More than what we have in front of us.”
He added, “I’m not there yet, but I’m interested in seeing where we can get to.”
It was Brett Lee who pointed the way to compromise, noting that the “elephant in the room” was the size and mass of the project but at the same time acknowledging the need for more housing in the community.
“We’re a split council at this point,” Lee said. “I feel this might be a bridge too far for the applicant but I think it is worth an effort to reach consensus among the five of us. I think seven stories is too large.”
He would suggest they approve the project and say “seven stories is too tall” but “we will approve a five-story project” and allow the applicant to try to make it work.
Listening to the council discussion, Bill Brown, representing Brixmor, explained the realities of financing. He explained that in order to underwrite the redevelopment, they need one level of retail and four levels of residential.
“Redevelopment is expressive, we have an existing asset that’s being devalued every day,” he said. “It takes a lot to underwrite the new expense for redevelopment.
“This is a very tight site,” he said, noting that they can’t simply spread this out across the site. He said he believed this was a great location across from a world-class university.
He noted, “I believe we can cut the height from 80 feet to 72. Take 10 percent of the height off it and still have the same cross-section. Still need the one level of retail. Still need four levels of residential And tuck that parking in the rear. It will take some redesign and it will take some program manipulation a bit.”
Otherwise, he noted that “we might have to table it,” saying that they have looked at the financials of this for seven months and “driven these numbers to the ground.”
But, even with these changes, Will Arnold still expressed concerns about affordability and the availability of the units for all renters.
Gloria Partida pushed back, noting that the project was across the street from the university and that no matter the configuration she would expect student renters.
“It would be great if we could get every single thing out of every single project,” she said. “But every project serves a purpose and this project is in the location that it’s at—and it’s going to serve its purpose.”
A location further away from campus absolutely, she said, would have zero to four bedrooms and much more increased affordability.
She said, “We are opening housing in other parts of the community and moving students to where they are less impactful.”
Brett Lee made several critical points.
“Why can’t it just be like it used to be—a vibrant mall,” he said, noting that this is one of the key criticisms of the project. “The retail equation doesn’t work the same way.
“The idea that Brixmor is going to plop a lot of money down and look to the glory days of the 1980s, that’s just not going to happen,” he said. “We see the devastation that retail is experiencing. In order to make it work, it needs to be a mixed-use project.
“This idea that it’s this wonderful gem of a mall,” he said. “Well kinda, I have rosy retrospection as well, but currently it’s on a path that doesn’t look that promising.”
He did note that from his perspective providing housing that is not going to be solely rental by the bed is critical.
“I do believe we need more housing,” he said.
In the end he said, “I am willing to commit to five stories,” and “that makes me more comfortable.”
The motion was put forward by Dan Carson and Brett Lee. After some wordsmithing and jockeying, however, Frerichs and Arnold were not willing to support it at this time. The motion passed 3-2.
—David M. Greenwald reporting