What’s Next for Washington Avenue?
WHEELING -Although City Council voted Tuesday to approve a controversial zone change on Washington Avenue, the proposed apartment complex that spurred a months-long debate between Wheeling Jesuit University, a local developer and neighborhood residents isn’t a done deal just yet.
Because the building would exceed 4,000 square feet, the project is subject to site plan review by the city Planning Commission. And if the development would require any type of zoning variance – concerning the required number of off-street parking spaces, for example – the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals would have to approve that, also.
Local developer Jonathan Bedway is seeking to build a three-story, 36-unit apartment building on Washington Avenue – billed as a way for Wheeling Jesuit University to address a shortage of housing for graduate students, although there’s no guarantee he would rent exclusively to WJU students if the school can’t fill all the units. That, the potential for increased traffic and parking issues are some of the reasons area residents have fought the proposal tooth and nail.
Tom Connelly, assistant director of Wheeling’s Economic and Community Development Department, said he has not yet received a site plan from Bedway for the proposed complex.
Monday would be the deadline to get a plan on the agenda for the Planning Commission’s next meeting on Oct. 21 – but based on the timing of various meetings over the next few months, he believes it’s unlikely the matter would be up for review before December.
“If you develop a site plan without having your variances obtained first, then there’s a possibility you’re going to have to come back before the Planning Commission,” Connelly said.
Tuesday’s rezoning changed the designation of all properties numbered 200-406 on the west side of Washington Avenue from R-1 single-family residential to R-4 high-density residential.
According to city code governing R-4 zones, a developer must have 1,000 feet of lot area per apartment unit. The five lots from 232-240 Washington Ave. on which Bedway wants to build cover about 69,000 square feet, Connelly said. That more than covers the number of units in the complex.
But multi-family dwellings in an R-4 zone must have 1.5 off-street parking spaces per unit. For a 36-unit complex, that would mean 54 spaces. University officials have said they would make parking spaces available on campus on the hill overlooking Washington Avenue – but according to Connelly, the project would still require a variance if Bedway intends to have fewer than 54-spaces on site.
“The only way you can get around that in the code is if it’s the same property owner,” Connelly said, noting the Planning Commission does have limited authority to reduce the required number of spaces by up to 10 percent – 5 spaces, in this case – even if the BZA denies a variance.
Any deviation from setback requirements also would require a variance, but the R-4 setback rules aren’t very stringent. The structure would have to be built at least 15 feet from the rear property line, and there are no requirements for front or side yard setbacks.
Concern over the potential to build right up to the sidewalk was one of the issues residents raised in opposition to the zone change, but Connelly said preliminary drawings submitted thus far don’t indicate any plans to do that.
R-4 zones also limit the height of buildings to three stories or 45 feet, and allow for up to 60 percent lot coverage, according to the code.
Any variance request would need to be approved during a public Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, during which residents would have the opportunity to address board members either in support of or in opposition to those variances.
Site Plan Review
Once variances are secured, Connelly said, the next likely step would be site plan review. He said the process usually takes place in that order because it means fewer steps are involved. For example, if the Planning Commission approves a site plan but the BZA denies a necessary variance, the developer then would have to come back before the Planning Commission with an amended site plan.
Neighborhood impact issues that are examined during the site plan review include, but are not limited to: traffic flow, ingress and egress, landscaping, lighting, drainage and stormwater management.
“It is to ensure orderly development in the city,” he said of the process.
Connelly said zone change requests require public hearings, but site plan reviews do not – so resident won’t get the opportunity to address the commission during the meeting. However, he said that doesn’t mean residents can’t express views on this plan, or any other that is up for review.
“If they have any questions, they can come to my office and look at the plans” once they’re submitted, he said. “They can email, write letters. … It’s not a direct interaction at the meeting, (but) they surely can communicate through this office to the Planning Commission.”
Planning Commission Chairman Howard Monroe stressed that the zoning measure and site plan review are separate issues, and should be treated as such.
“Site plan (review) is not a way to stop something you don’t like. It’s a way to ensure proper procedures are followed,” he said.
Both the Planning Commission’s vote to recommend the rezoning and City Council’s vote to approve it were 4-3 decisions. But Monroe does not believe the lack of unanimity concerning the issue should have any bearing on that body’s review of Bedway’s site plan.
“It shouldn’t. I don’t know that it will. The reality is when a controversial issue comes before us, people look at it in a different way,” he acknowledged.
Monroe said Planning Commission members have the responsibility to examine some of the concerns raised by the neighborhood during the process thus far and ensure they’re addressed during any site plan review.
“We will certainly do that,” he said.
Making it Work
Connelly said Wheeling already contained a number of R-4 districts prior to the Washington Avenue rezoning. These include a swath of properties on the east side of W.Va. 2 in North Wheeling, from Sixth Street to about North First Street; the condominiums and townhouses in the North Park neighborhood; and areas in East Wheeling and South Wheeling.
And there are other examples around the city, he said, where there are multi-story apartment buildings next to single-family homes. He pointed to a building at the corner of W.Va. 88 and Poplar Avenue, one along the alley behind Woodsdale Elementary School and another on Springdale Avenue as examples, though none includes as many units as the proposed Washington Avenue project.
“There are apartment buildings that are next to single-story homes. … This is isn’t something new, but those were developed prior to current zoning regulations … ,” Connelly said. “(They do) fit in … and that’s the idea, that it’s compatible with the neighborhood.”
Connelly also pointed to the fact there are several duplexes and triplexes on Washington Avenue that were “grandfathered” in when council adopted the new zoning code in 2002, and he believes the current laws provide greater protection for residents than did the prior code.
Before 2002, “it would have been purely based on the lot size,” Connelly said. “I don’t think people are aware of that.”