About the size of new apartments at 61st and Abercorn . . . .

Jessica Leigh Lebos has a provocative and interesting column in Connect Savannah this week: Nightmare on 61st Street. It’s definitely worth reading.

There are some fluid elements to this controversy, and my next column doesn’t come out till Sunday. I have a Thursday deadline for that piece, which makes writing about the Avenues on 61st tricky for City Talk.

So let me put a few thoughts and links here.

First off, we’re talking about the unusually tall apartment buildings now under construction on 61st Street just east of Abercorn.

From an article by Adam Van Brimmer last summer in the SMN, Apartment complex planned for vacant section of Abercorn Terrace site:

A developer bought the Abercorn Terrace property in 2007 bent on turning the low-income housing units into luxury condominiums.

Now five years later, the site is on the verge of finally being fully redeveloped, albeit with a different blend of residences and new developers.

The Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission blessed Tuesday a plan to build a 32-unit apartment complex on the north end of the nine-acre site. The Savannah Lofts would be constructed on the cleared part of the property across 61st Street from the larger section of the site already redeveloped into Savannah College of Art and Design student housing.

The Savannah Lofts would feature three-story buildings with a mix of three and four-bedroom rental units.

Problem #1 — and by far the most significant of the issues raised in Jessica’s column today: the developer is apparently renting these units by the bedroom rather than the unit. They’re essentially suite-style apartments with one lease per bedroom. This is not the understanding under which these units were approved. There’s no clear, confirming language of this model currently on the Avenues on 61st website, but an ad from April 22 on Craigslist includes this language: “IF 4 PEOPLE FILL A TOWN HOME TODAY, YOU GET YOUR FIRST MONTH’S RENT FREE!”

If the apartments were being rented by the unit, why would the developer care whether the units had four occupants or not?

Assuming the units are being rented with individual leases for each bedroom, then I expect city officials to pursue a stop work order until the issue is resolved.

UPDATE, 4/24, about 5:30 p.m.: As of right now, the a classified ad at SCAD District lists the following, which leaves no doubt that the bedrooms are being rented individually:

4BR townhouses—Luxury student housing located in Habersham Village. Fully furnished, rent incls. cable, internet, W/D and trash removal. Stainless-Steel appliances, walk-in closets, hdwd style floors and ceiling fans. $610/mo. individually leased. 12 month leases. $50 off first month’s rent when you refer a friend, minutes from downtown and seconds from shopping and food. Call today for more information spaces are going fast (912)335-3661.

In her Connect column, Jessica’s main complaint is about the height of the units. I agree they’re too tall.

But take a look at the application before the Metropolitan Planning Commission last year. The developer needed only a 5-foot variance for a setback; no height variances were needed. The site was built up at least a few feet above grade for drainage purposes, but that in itself required no variance.

Is 40 feet (or a few feet more) too tall on that stretch of road? I think so. But the lot has been zoned for that height for decades. When the lot was first planned as condos a few years back, the plan was for some three-story units.

From Jessica and then from others later today, there have been various other complaints about density and especially parking.

Here’s the map of the buildings, with 61st St. at the bottom:
Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 9.39.24 PM

There’s no entry to the complex from 60th Lane. Each of the 32 units — a total of 128 bedrooms (or perhaps slightly fewer if some are 3-bedroom as reported last year) — has a two-car garage. Also, in the original application, the developer asked for parking to be reinstated on-street on the north side of 61st Street, which would add about a dozen spaces to the stock in the area.

Yes, 61st Street traffic would have to be more careful if we reinstate parking on that side, but it’s no big deal. There are residential blocks all over the city where two cars can’t really pass unless one pulls to the side and allows the other to pass. Here’s a screen capture from Google Street view of that block:

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 9.50.26 PM

So with the 64 spaces under the units and those 12 on the street, that’s 76 spaces. Would that be enough for the 128 bedrooms?

The approved One West Victory apartments are providing 216 spaces for the 330 likely residents. That’s a slightly higher ratio of spaces/residents than the Avenues on 61st, but not much (roughly .65 to .60).

Will that be enough spaces? I think so.

So I’m very concerned about the business model of Chance Partners and Asset Campus Housing — it looks like they’re renting the units in a fundamentally different way than they described when they won approval for the project.

The height is regrettable, but entirely legal. The lesson here is that it pays to know your neighborhood zoning, use, height, etc. rules. I’m also surprised that some neighborhood organization wasn’t more vigilant in raising concerns last year before the development made it through Savannah City Council.

Some of the other concerns I’ve heard today seem off-key to me. Many neighborhoods would like to see more owner-occupied, single-family homes and fewer rental units, but Savannah’s older neighborhoods are pretty much all mixed use. The new apartments on 61st are on a lot that may never have had owner-occupied housing, is adjacent to student housing to the south, is adjacent to a range of businesses in Habersham Village, is on a major bus line, has access to SCAD shuttles, and is only about a mile from SCAD buildings to the west and just a little over a mile from Savannah Tech to the south and a few other SCAD buildings to the north.

That sounds like a great spot for some nice rental units. Just shorter ones.

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