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Building them like they used to: Bloomington development bucks zoning standards to blend new with old

December 17, 2007

As high-density residential construction booms in downtown Bloomington and sprawl continues in surrounding Monroe County, a new development is offering an old-school alternative.

The South Dunn Street development will include 38 bungalows, four squares and 1-1/2 story cottages-the same early 20th-century styles that occupy the rest of the surrounding Bryan Park neighborhood.

Deep front porches fill much of the small front yards. There are no driveways in the front, only alleys in the back. Three street-front commercial buildings will create a walkable shopping district. It's all set on unusually narrow streets that match the grid of the surrounding blocks. The only thing that stands out is the strong hue of the houses: purple, orange, red and deep blue.

The narrow streets and lack of driveways are distinct markers of New Urbanism, the design philosophy that stresses compact neighborhoods and keeping homes, shops, work spaces and civic spaces within walking distance.

"The term New Urbanism is kind of absurd. It's old living," said resident Beth Schroeder, 54, who moved to the neighborhood with her husband from rural Monroe County. "It's how most people lived until the sprawl of the fifties. It's retro. We're just getting back to what we know was good."

First-time developer Matt Press had buyers like the Schroeders in mind in the fall of 2003 when he decided to buy the seven-acre lot a mile south of Indiana University.

"This is not right for everyone," said Press, 41. "One of the problems I have with suburbia is that for 30 years it's been put forth as the only option for home building. This is not a replacement-this is an alternative."

With 15 homes sold and several more with purchase agreements, the development has so far attracted home buyers willing to give up larger lots farther from the city's core for the advantages of urban living. He expects it to be fully built out in a year to two years.

Press, who lives in his own restored 1930s bungalow nearby, first learned about the long-vacant site during a previ ous developer's attempt to build apartment buildings there. He read about neighbors' bitter opposition to the plan, and when the deal fell through, he called the developer and made an offer. They reached an agreement, and Press went immediately to Bill Hayden, president at the time of the Bryan Park Neighborhood Association, and told him he wanted input from neighbors.

"He blew me away because he really wanted to work with the neighbors," Hayden said.

Press held a series of meetings at a nearby elementary school to explain New Urbanism. It wasn't until getting feedback from neighborhood residents that he and his architects sketched out the development plan. That he won the support of surrounding property owners spoke loudly to city officials.

"He had a core group of residents who were lobbying and actively engaging the city on the developer's behalf," said city Planning Director Tom Micuda. "Which just doesn't happen in our profession."

Permission to blend

Press needed community support. The development, though consistent with the surrounding area, was inconsistent with Bloomington zoning standards, which called for suburban-style development. The lot sizes, setbacks from the street and street widths Press asked for and was granted in August 2004 were all below the city's minimum requirements.

Press argued that his requests were consistent with the neighborhood; it was the suburban-style requirements in the zoning ordinance that didn't fit. Neighbors backed him up in letters and at city meetings.

"Why require bigger lots when smaller lots are actually more in keeping with what's around it?" Micuda asked. "That's very intuitive to planners and architects, but you have to show it to the neighbors. [Press and his architects] were able to do that very successfully."

In the future, builders might have an easier time. Early this year, Bloomington revised its standard zoning requirements to allow narrower lots and reduced setbacks. It also added a "traditional subdivision" option that would make it easier for New Urbanism projects to get approval.

"We put that in place largely because of the lessons we learned [from South Dunn Street] and because of how much people liked Matt's project," Micuda said.

Winning over city development officials wasn't the only obstacle Press faced.

When the fire chief objected that fire trucks would have difficulty maneuvering the narrow streets, Press agreed to install sprinkler systems in each house, a rarity in single-family homes.

Even then, support wasn't universal. Several Henderson Street neighbors adjacent to the site felt the plan was too dense. One of them, Stacy Walden, said the development was a key reason she decided to sell her house.

"It's not that I don't like the urban concept," she said. "I'm just not about sticking too many houses on one acre of land."

The most difficult point for the city council to accept was the back-out parking in front of the commercial buildings on Hillside Drive, a street some said was too busy to be backed into safely. That concern caused Councilman David Sabbaugh and two others to vote against the project.

Sabbaugh said he still prefers the infill of core neighborhoods over sprawl on the city's fringes. And he acknowledged Bloomington's development policies, such as the lot size and setback requirements, have not always made such growth easy.

"The more difficult we make it to build inside [the core neighborhoods], the more we encourage sprawl," he said. "We have to be aware of that."

Securing financing, like getting the city's approval, took extra explanation from Press. He figured that was a cost of doing something different, he said.

"[Banks] can look at the suburban model and understand it very clearly because they've had it presented to them thousands of times," he said. "New Urbanism, even now, is poorly understood by banks. It's seen as high risk. I'm proving that myth wrong, very handily."

Diversity, community

While the physical attributes of South Dunn Street drew the most attention, some also objected to the project's lack of affordable housing. The 15 houses sold so far have ranged from $254,000 to $673,000 for a customized yellow four square that includes a rental studio above the detached garage.

Press noted that those studios, or "Granny flats," above some of the garages are an opportunity to bring in renters and diversify income levels in the neighborhood. He said the second stories of the commercial buildings could also become residential units. When he bought the property, it came with several small "railroad worker" homes in disrepair. He donated three of them to Bloomington Restorations Inc., a not-for-profit that restored them as affordable housing, moving two of them a few blocks away and keeping one on site.

Micuda, a 13-year veteran of the planning office, sees the project as a sign of the health of Bloomington's core neighborhoods. But he said replicating it might not be easy, as there are few undeveloped properties of that size within such easy walking distance of downtown and IU.

Resident Randy Arnold, a research chemist, said the proximity to campus was a key selling point. So was the sense of community fostered by the porches and the neighborhood layout, he said. When his wife, Kim, gave birth this summer, the majority of neighbors brought them a meal or a gift. Most of the ones that didn't had just moved in and hadn't met them yet, Kim Arnold said.

"And even the ones that brought something didn't know us well," Randy said. "But they knew we were part of the neighborhood."

Press said sales have slowed recently, but it's hard to tell what's responsible: the slump in the housing market or winter weather, which typically eats into sales. Home shoppers have told him mortgages have been tougher to obtain recently, though he hasn't lost any committed buyers, he said. The first commercial building, which has no signed tenants, is being built on speculation, but the houses are not.
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