A resolution to the question of whether the Cedar Falls City Council will grant its citizens protection from an essentially unregulated apartment building project proposed in the heart of the College Hill district is scheduled to be debated by the council Monday.
Despite a great deal of controversy surrounding it, a resolution to accept the developer’s proposal was passed by the Cedar Falls Planning and Zoning Commission with a single vote margin.
The debate centers around whether a building that is 83 percent residential should be considered something else. That would allow a number of deviations from city code that regulates apartment construction projects. Although both architects on the P & Z Commission agreed the proper classification of the building is residential (Cedar Falls Zoning Code defines principal use as the main use of a building), the subsequent vote ignored this opinion and classified the building as principally commercial.
The city maintains a commercial building classification allows the developer an unrestricted number of apartments, since there is not restriction in their number in commercial building code (apartment complexes are considered residential buildings), and allows the height to be many stories higher than residential code would allow. Classifying the building as commercial protects the developer from many requirements that normally regulate such apartment building projects.
The most frequently cited criticism of this lack of regulation is there are no parking requirements demanded of a project that would normally require up to 196 parking places under current city code. And there are many other requirements the building will escape, potentially saving the builder millions of dollars but causing surrounding homes and businesses catastrophic parking problems and other headaches in an area most say is already critically deficient in parking.
Another issue is the developer will receive nearly $1 million from the city in tax abatements, a practice originally developed to promote building projects in blighted inner city areas. Many feel tax abatements to assist a developer in building apartments in a commercial zone, especially where the zoning code expressly discourages them, is improper.
Some members of the City Council are critics of the plan and believe the city is showing favoritism in this circumstance. And while the mayor has stated such projects must be built according to city code, a lawyer for Concerned Citizens of College Hill indicates this is one of the most distorted interpretations of city code he has seen in 30 years of practice.
But the controversy doesn’t stop there. The developer maintains parking isn’t necessary for college students because only 30 percent have cars. This may be true in some large cities, but a recent survey of private student-type apartment housing surrounding the project demonstrates a 98 percent rate of car ownership or use.
Some P & Z members believe the city code should be rewritten based upon the developer’s assertions and no longer require parking for apartment complexes near the university.
So the question to be answered is this: Should the City Council ignore the needs and rights of the citizens of the College Hill area as established in the current city code, or should it ignore or rewrite the code as is being proposed by some planning and zoning members to favor a single developer?