Will a 50-unit condominium project in downtown Liberty improve a blighted area and bring more business to merchants along the town square? Or will it mar looks of the adjacent historic district of turn-of-the century homes and make parking impossible for residents there?
Those are the questions the Liberty City Council is considering as a proposal to build housing for people aged 50 and up makes its way through the city approval process. Along the way, the $10 million project on 1.7 acres has generated neighborhood protests and hours of lengthy, sometimes contentious meetings.
The Heritage Club development was approved this month by the city’s planning and zoning commission on a 5-2 vote, after previous rejections. It was to have gone before the city council Monday night, but was postponed until Feb. 9 while the developer and neighbors negotiated changes.
The plan was the seventh drawn up by architects for developer Fielding Staton, as he said he tried to answer questions and objections brought up by the neighbors. Staton said the redrawing and multiple trips through the planning and zoning commission have been a frustrating business.
“We’re fighting to put up something beneficial to the square,” he said. “This type of thing wins awards and could change the face of downtown Liberty.”
Staton described the development as a project “for young retirees who want to live around people and who are active.”
Deed restrictions will limit the residency to those 50 and up, a “forgotten demographic” of people who don’t want a house but would not qualify for government-assisted apartments, he said. “It’s really a market that is underserved.”
The project is for one- and two-bedroom units and would be maintenance free, he said. A one-bedroom unit, of about 1,000 square feet, would cost about $180,000 and a two-bedroom unit would be $220,000. In addition, the project includes a fitness center and clubhouse with an activity room and bar.
The current plan is scaled back from the first one Staton proposed in 2013. That project would have been five stories with 80 units, a theater, three restaurants and two bars.
However, that plan and another offered in the fall of 2014 did not make it through the planning and zoning commission. The latest one, for a one- and two-story complex, passed out of the commission on a 5-2 vote after a lengthy meeting.
The project, on the southwest corner of North Prairie Street and West Mississippi Street, is on land that is considered blighted and is tax abated. Two uninhabitable vacant houses and an old drive-through bank are on the property now.
“This is a big fork in the road for downtown Liberty,” said Staton. “This is the last piece of property downtown you could do something really fabulous with and create a condominium complex for seniors without having to tear down historic buildings.”
Supporters of the project say it would bring more life to the old downtown square and its businesses. Tom Underwood, president of Historic Downtown Liberty Inc., wrote a letter to the Liberty Tribune this month in favor of the proposal.
“Such a facility would be a huge economic uplift and is the type of project recommended in the original Downtown Master Plan that we have needed for a very long time,” he wrote.
Historic Downtown Liberty Inc. is part of the national Main Street movement to revitalize downtowns and support their businesses.
Fay Bedinger, retired downtown furniture store owner, said the complex, which is near her home, would be a good thing for downtown businesses.
But residents in the Dougherty Historic District feel differently. That district of about 150 homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s runs adjacent to the condo boundary. Since the project is not within the historic district boundaries, the city Historic District Review Commission has no veto power. But commission members have discussed the project and issued a public comment saying it would negatively affect their area.
Homeowners have objected to many aspects of the plan over the months, including building height, roofing materials and conformity to the city’s master plan. Staton said he has answered many of those concerns by scaling back the height and scope of the project.
But parking remains a big issue for a neighborhood in which homes were built before the predominance of cars. In many cases, homes in the area don’t have garages or even driveways, said Jonna Wensel, the community development staffer who works with historic districts.
Neighbors have questioned whether Staton’s ratio of 1.7 spaces per resident would be enough.
Staton, on the other hand, said that he’s done his best to address the neighborhood’s issues but that the homeowners shoot down everything he comes back with.
Doug Day, a resident who has sometimes spoken for the homeowners at city meetings, said they don’t object to development per se.
“The neighbors have always been in favor of developing that blighted area,” he said. “We are eager to see something good happen that will strengthen downtown.”
Day said the neighborhood still has a lot of concerns, but is confident of coming to a mutually acceptable solution.
“We don’t want this to be an ugly situation for the city,” he said.
Day’s own property would be a back-door neighbor to the condo complex, just across his white picket fence.
“I would see it out the kitchen window every day for the rest of my life.”
Some in favor of the project have also noted the political connections of neighbors against the project. One of those is Steve Anderson, former planner and community development director for Liberty.
Anderson and Dee Rosekrans, chairman of the city planning and zoning commission, are both administrators for Liberty Public Schools. Anderson is chief operations officer and Rosekrans is director of human resources.
Rosekrans was one of the two opposing votes at the most recent planning and zoning commission. He said he did not think working for the same organization was enough reason to recuse himself. They never discussed the case outside of the meeting room, Rosekrans said. Rosekrans is not directly answerable to Anderson at the school, Rosekrans said.
“People can think what they think, but I can look myself in the mirror each morning and know the decisions I made were based on facts,” said Rosekrans.
When contacted by email, Anderson said he did not want to comment on the issue.