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Multifamily homes still multiplying

NORTH LIBERTY– Is there too much multifamily housing in North Liberty?
City council members have posed that question periodically since 2007, even passing and then repealing a moratorium on multifamily housing site plans that year.
But the apparent answer continues to be “No.”
Home buyers are still demanding it, developers are still asking to build it, and neighbors and city leaders are continuing to accept it.
The North Liberty Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission reviewed a multifamily housing development proposal for the Cedar Springs neighborhood, voting 6-0 (with one member abstaining) at its April 3 meeting. The proposal by Grand Rail Development for Cedar Springs part 13 plan contains one 3-plex, two duplexes and two 4-plexes on three acres of ground north of the pond near the intersection of Cedar Springs Drive and Silver Maple Drive, for a combined total of 15 units.
By the time the proposal came before them, members of the P& Z Commission only had one concern. While the plan meets the city’s masonry standard that requires a certain percentage of masonry product on the fronts of certain buildings to increase frontage appeal, it’s the back of the homes that will face the development’s entrance.
“So staff is recommending putting some masonry on the backs of the buildings too, that face the buildings across the street,” said City Planner Dean Wheatley.
However, after further discussion and the applicant’s presentation, the commission decided to allow the developer to beautify the backs of the units with landscaping instead of masonry, largely because viewing of the back yards would be limited.
“Even if I put 20 percent (masonry) on the back, you’re not even going to see it. You’re going to be looking at the top part of the buildings. I’d rather do the additional landscaping,” said applicant Mike Evans representing Grand Rail Development.
The planning commission agreed, voting to recommend the council approve the site plan for the 15 units 6-0.
The seventh P&Z commissioner, Seth Anderson, abstained from the voting process, saying he lives in the area and he organized a meeting of neighbors who live in Cedar Springs
“I sent the letter to the residents,” said Anderson. “My motivation was this development would have gone underneath the radar for many people in the neighborhood, and construction would have started and it would have caught them by surprise. I felt it was my duty as a resident, and with my standing on this commission, I felt we should inform people and provide them with a meeting where they could ask questions.”
City staff did hold a meeting, Wheatley reported, and about 60 residents attended and asked questions for about 90 minutes.
Anderson said in a phone interview last week that the handful of Cedar Springs residents he spoke with had mostly general concerns surrounding the proposal.
“One concern was no one had told them there would be multifamily housing there. Another was that someone had told them there would be no housing there, but a park instead; there are people who believe that a park really fits best near the pond, and there is a need for it. And some people just aren’t interested in having multifamily housing in the neighborhood,” said Anderson.
Anderson made it clear he was only speaking as a resident– not on behalf of the P&Z– but felt the meeting was a good opportunity for the city to answer the neighbors’ questions.
“It was well-attended and informative,” Anderson said. “The important thing was the meeting allowed for people to voice concerns and ask questions, and that was certainly a goal of the meeting; to feel like people are being listened to and heard.”
If the history of this development is any indication, Cedar Spring residents concerned about too much multifamily housing can rest assured that their voices have been heard. City Administrator Ryan Heiar noted that Cedar Springs was originally zoned to be able to contain 100 units of multifamily housing, but over time, its developers have continually down-zoned to build zero-lot and single family residences instead. This multifamily housing plan, with just 15 units, will be the first and only housing of that type in Cedar Springs.
“And this is a really nice plan,” Heiar added. “It will look very similar to the housing already there.”
Wheatley said in an earlier interview that developers logically build what is most profitable in current real estate markets, and two factors have created an increase in demand for multifamily housing in this area; the economic downturn in 2008 caused home buyers to seek lower-cost housing, and an abundance of available commercial property in North Liberty has prompted developers to rezone undeveloped properties from commercial to residential.
Heiar said the trend still exists.
“From a homeowner’s or tenant’s point of view, yes, there is a high demand for multifamily, and as a result, developers are looking for places to build. The city gets inquiries regularly,” Heiar said.
As North Liberty’s housing supply grows, the talk of moratoriums on any type of development remains only a distant memory. However, Heiar said multifamily applications will continue to be reviewed carefully.
“The message we send is that, for any type of multifamily project, we are going to have to see high quality buildings. We have some great stuff out there already, and as we have more and more multifamily housing going up, the staff, P&Z and council are going to be more particular about what is recommended for approval,” said Heiar.
North Liberty is unique in that it actually contains similar amounts of single-family homes and multifamily units, an unusual ratio for an older community.
“We just want to be sure that any product that comes in meets North Liberty’s standard,” Heiar said. “We want to maintain a high quality of life here, and offer good, affordable units for our current and future residents.”
The North Liberty City Council will consider the P&Z’s recommendaion at an upcoming council meeting.