Bluebonnet Hills to fight apartment complex

03/15/2014 12:00 AM

03/14/2014 5:56 PM

A series of brick duplexes with neatly trimmed yards line busy University Street near Texas Christian University, with residents using the sidewalks to go shopping or bike to class.

Tucked just behind those duplexes are single-story bungalows, carefully tended gardens, quiet neighborhood streets and inviting front porches.

But residents of this quiet neighborhood are afraid that it will lose its charm if a developer is allowed to tear down and replace the duplexes to make room for a sprawling, 175-bedroom apartment complex near the intersection of South University Drive and Benbrook Boulevard.

The proposed apartment complex two blocks from TCU has residents in Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association mounting opposition to the project, saying it is too dense for the already crowded neighborhood. It also reveals gaps in the city’s zoning ordinance, they say.

“What we cannot have is encroachment into these single family neighborhoods to their detriment,” said Sandra Dennehy, chairwoman of the Berry Street Initiative. “That will erode these neighborhoods, and we need strong, single-family development to support the businesses on Berry Street.”

The owner of the property, Shope & Ryan Management Inc., is requesting a zoning change from medium density multifamily, which would allow for a maximum of 125 bedrooms at the 1.37-acre development, to urban residential, which does not have a maximum number of bedrooms but is limited by the height of the building. The number of units in the proposed project has been set.

Matthew J. Vruggink,partner with Ojala Holdings, said they have already made concessions because of residents’ worries such as planning for 25 percent more parking than required, eliminating pools due to noise concerns and quadrupling the side-yard and rear-yard setbacks.

Vruggink said the apartments will cater to residents “people should want to live in their neighborhood” and said the apartments will be high-end.

“What we are proposing is what we believe to be a very architecturally compelling project with an emphasis on traditional townhome-feel,” he said a zoning meeting last week.

The zoning commissioners voted 9-0 to continue the case so the neighborhood and developer can come to a solution, but for Dennehy, the solution is amending the city’s zoning ordinance to make urban residential more defined.

Flawed zoning?

The proposed apartments are in the Bluebonnet Circle Urban Village, one of the city’s 16 urban villages, which are small, dense areas zoned for multi-use development and are pedestrian- and mass-transit-friendly.

The master plan for the Bluebonnet Urban Village calls for townhomes along University Drive that are two to three stories, have unique facades, have a strong relationship between the building and street and promote the pedestrian environment.

The townhomes are meant to be a transition between the commercial development on Berry Street and the heavily residential areas to the west, said Dennehy. The urban residential zoning, created in 2010, is meant to provide for that transition.

The problem, Dennehy said, is that the zoning designation is too broad, because it can include everything from dense apartments to townhouses and single family homes.

Dennehy, who was part of the task force that came up the idea of urban residential zoning for urban villages, said urban residential should have been divided into subcategories for low density, medium density and high density.

“The devil in the details. We thought we were doing the right thing, but the urban residential zoning, while it identifies four styles of housing that are appropriate, it is an umbrella zoning that a developer can max out,” Dennehy said.

Vruggink, however, said the apartments will provide that transition for the neighborhood.

“The most significant objection that I want to address is the idea that it is not a transitional density project, and I think that is inaccurate,” said Vruggink at the meeting. “What this shows is that we are proposing a project that is half as tall, that is better parked, and is 53 percent less dense than projects along Berry Street.”

The apartment complex is limited to three stories, the same height requirement for single family zoning.

The staff report for the case states that the zoning change is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and consistent with surrounding land uses.

A few commissioners did not seem as convinced, however, at the zoning meeting.

“University is a beautiful street. It has lovely old homes. ... If we get apartments in this particular area, I think in the end, I see that these neighborhoods are going to be gone. I think we will just wipe them out,” said Wanda Conlin, a zoning commissioner, during the meeting.

Residents’ concerns

Martha Jones, vice president of the Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association who lives two blocks from the proposed development, is afraid of “losing the neighborhood.”

“The proposed project is using the urban village idea but what they are proposing is a long way from what we envisioned,” said Jones, then using her hands to make quotation marks, continued, “They are using words like — it will ‘feel’ like a town home — but that is not what it will be.”

The apartment complex is planning to designate one parking spot per bedroom and have 25 spaces for visitors, but for an area that already has parking problems because of the proximity to TCU and shops, that just won’t be enough, said Jones, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1988.

Residents in areas of Wabash Avenue, two streets behind the complex, already have special permits from the city for parking because of congestion.

“What they are proposing is just way too intense for this area. This urban village was not designed for this,” said Jones, who is also afraid traffic will increase on neighborhood side streets because of the complex.

Zoning commissioner Carlos Flores recommended the developers seek a traffic study, and also said he had “doubts” that the parking in the complex will be sufficient.

The neighborhood turned in 75 signatures opposing the complex, and the city received over 40 letters of opposition, citing parking, congestion, noise, and frustration that the development is just not what the community wants.

“Do I understand the concerns presented in these letters? Absolutely. I would say that I do respectfully disagree with many of the points addressed,” Vruggink said.

The developer will have to build under the regulations of the urban residential zoning, which include enhanced public landscaping, height and parking requirements. Vruggink said the apartments will naturally encourage pedestrian activity, with their proximity the TCU and businesses on Berry Street.

Jones, however, said the planned single entrance/exit through the underground parking garage will not promote pedestrian activity, but will instead encourage residents to use their cars.

“The neighborhood is not averse to redevelopment of this area. I love the whole concept of the urban village. ... But the proposed complex is not going to engage the neighborhood or activate the street. It is not the kind of community we envisioned,” Jones said.

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