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Multi-family development still thrives in North Liberty

NORTH LIBERTY– Developers continue to churn out multi-family housing in North Liberty, buyers continue to come out of the woodwork, and the City of North Liberty remains vigilant in the process.
Last Tuesday, the council approved a site plan for Robson Homes, a new multi-family residential development in West Lake development off S. Kansas Avenue. However, the plan warranted at least some discussion and garnered one vote of no confidence.
Though the development is zoned for 41 units, the site plan contains just 28 two-story townhouses, with a design that changed over time to meet the city’s request for a more varied, architecturally-interesting appearance.
“Rather than trying to push the plan through, (the developers) have reconsidered, resubmitted and rearranged buildings that made them less close to the properties around them,” said City Planner Dean Wheatley.
However, the configuration of the streets and drives in the development, as well as the units’ close proximity to one another, concerned City Council member Gerry Kuhl.
“This site plan makes extensive use of dead-end, private drives with minimal pedestrian accommodations,” Kuhl said. “I object to the private drives. We have no control over them. They could be constructed very cheaply, they will deteriorate over a period of time, and we may find ourselves in the situation where the homeowners’ association doesn’t have funds to fix the private drives or do the proper maintenance.”
Kuhl said the City has pushed to discourage private drives in new developments, but Wheatley and Mayor Tom Salm noted the streets still have to be constructed according to city codes.
“We do have design standards for private streets,” Salm said. “Our building department does go out and check for thickness, quality of concrete and things like that.”
Wheatley also confirmed the street design allowed accessibility to emergency vehicles and fire trucks, and that a fire hydrant had been added upon the request of officials from the North Liberty Fire Department.
Duane Musser, a design engineer with MMS Consultants and a representative of the project, assured the council the drives do meet the city’s design standards. Musser also noted the street configuration– a single private drive leading eastward off Kansas and extending to a dead-end street running north and south in front of the condominium units– is used in many similar developments throughout the city.
The compact nature of these dead-end streets is desirable for multi-family housing developments, according to realtor and broker for the development, Mike Bails.
“It’s no different than a cul-de-sac, which also dead-ends,” said Bails, “but the biggest reason for using this kind of street for multi-family housing is, you have to have a tight configuration of streets to minimize land costs in order to maximize affordability.”
And affordability is keeping North Liberty’s condominium housing market booming, Bails added.
“Condos have been selling like crazy,” he said, attributing both the federal government’s $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers and low interest rates.
“There has been a slight up-tick because of the federal stimulus, but in my opinion, it comes down to the low rates. People who have been renting are buying now.”
Bails, who works with realtor Tom Lepic of Lepic Kroeger Realtors, Inc. in Iowa City, said in the last two years, he and Lepic have conducted $100 million in residential sales in this area alone, and buying a condominium remains an affordable, desirable option for home ownership.
“These units are anywhere from 1,100 to 1300 sq. ft. but are considerably under the price per square foot for a similar-sized house,” Bails said. “They have full basements. They are new, with modern amenities, so there is nothing to upgrade or replace. While home prices have been consistently steady, overall, people’s incomes haven’t risen, so we still have a need for this type of housing.”
But the density of the townhouse-style condominiums restricts homeowners from adding on to their outdoor decks, which also concerned both Kuhl and councilor Chris Hoffman.
“The ability of these folks to do anything with the backs of these homes is limiting right now,” said Hoffman. “I would look for us to do a little bit better with that.”
Because these condominiums are “price-sensitive,” Bails replied, not a lot of buyers will seek to do outside improvements.
“The condo association regulates and maintains the exterior of the buildings,” said Bails. “Adding a screened porch is going to increase insurance costs and other aspects, so it is not a request that is very common.”
Despite any perceived limitations, Bails said after the meeting, condominiums are still selling rapidly in North Liberty.
On Alydar Drive, to the north of the proposed new development, 63 of the first 68 units built have either been sold or have purchase offers pending. The remaining five units are still unfinished, Bails said. Similarly, in Woodland Meadows development behind Core Fitness, 11 of the 12 condominium units are sold, and a Grand Rail development boasts 14 of its 24 12-plex units already sold.
“We are selling a lot of this realty when it’s still dirt,” Bails said of North Liberty’s multi-family housing market. “I think things are trending back to the positive.”
Continued need for multi-family housing wasn’t enough for Kuhl; displeased with the proximity of the units’ back decks, the overall density of the development, and particularly the private drives, Kuhl offered the only dissenting vote in the council’s resolution approving the Robson Homes site plan.
Referring to the streets that will eventually become the responsibility of yet another homeowners’ association, Kuhl said, “I just don’t want to see the city caught in a bad situation in future years.”