Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Be my waiter but not my neighbor

March 30, 2013

Louis MahernCity-county councilors have a nasty tradition of agreeing with one another to blackball developments within their individual districts. Councilperson A doesn’t like a proposed gas station in his district. He will “call down” the required zoning variance, thus urging his fellow councilors to delay the proposed zoning change and with any luck kill the project.

Councilperson B votes for the delay because one day she might have a project in her district she wants killed. If Councilor A can get a majority of members to agree, he might be able to kill the project.

This has been going on for years and has been used to thwart apartments in suburbia, affordable housing, commercial usage and group homes for the developmentally disabled.

The latest manifestation of this unfortunate aspect of democracy came just a few weeks ago when Councilor Jeff Miller blocked the zoning change required to provide affordable housing on Virginia Avenue just southeast of downtown.

The property currently zoned industrial needed a change to a classification allowing the site and an existing building to be used for 30 one-bedroom and 20 two-bedroom units, parking under the structure, and 5,000 square feet of commercial. The prospective tenants could have no more than $28,000 in a one-income household (not quite $13.50 an hour) or $33,000 in a two-income household (about what two minimum-wage earners would make). One-bedroom units would have rented for $540.

More than 40 percent of Marion County households would have met the income qualifications. In the immediate market area (Fletcher Place and Fountain Square), nearly 900 households pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

The developers won support from the Mayor’s Office, the unanimous approval of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, recommendation from the professional staff of the Department of Metropolitan Development, and a 7-1 vote to approve from the Metropolitan Development Commission.

The developer also won approval from the Fletcher Place and Holy Rosary neighborhood associations.

Everything seemed to be on track until the owners of the half-million-dollar condos at the Villaggio weighed in.

Villaggio owners across Virginia from the proposed moderate-income development began attending neighborhood meetings and raising questions about “density” at the proposed project.

These density issues were not raised when The Mozzo, a 64-unit apartment project, was built next to the Villaggio on Virginia where one-bedroom units will rent for $900. Nor were objections raised when The Hinge, a 56-unit project, was built just two blocks farther south on Virginia, where one-bedroom units will rent for $1,120.

After packing a subsequent meeting, the Villaggio owners managed to turn the Fletcher Place endorsement into opposition. They then convinced the Holy Rosary board members to change their minds.

The Miller move effectively kills the project. As a result of his motion, the project missed its deadline to qualify for the federal tax credits that make it work financially. The developers may reapply for next year.

Miller says he was unaware of the implications of his motion, but he did wait until the day of the vote before telling the developers and fellow councilors that he would file his motion. All fellow Republicans, and even more shamefully, three Democrats, joined Miller in opposing.

The hip bars, restaurants and boutiques springing up along Virginia Avenue between downtown and Fountain Square draw tenants to The Villaggio, The Mozzo and The Hinge.

Apparently, those tenants just don’t want to live across the street from the servers and clerks who wait on them in those trendy establishments.•

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Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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