INDIANA: Borough commission OKs student housing project
May 16, 2013 11:00 AM

The Indiana Borough Planning Commission, on a split vote, Wednesday gave final approval — with two minor conditions — to a controversial high-density student housing project planned for 931 Oakland Ave.

But an attorney representing a neighbor opposed to the project said the proposed student housing complex may next face an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

B&L Properties plans to demolish a large bed-and-breakfast and will build in its place a three-story structure that can accommodate up to 64 student tenants.

Brent Young, the design engineer for the project, said Wednesday evening a required asbestos removal investigation is now being conducted in the building. When that is completed, demolition could start soon and take two weeks and construction of the new housing complex may begin in July, he said.

B&L’s goal is to have the building ready for occupancy by the start of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s fall 2014 semester.

The project previously received preliminary approval from the planning commission with several conditions, and the commission members Wednesday reviewed each of those. After nearly two hours of discussion and listening to comments from attorneys representing both sides, the members granted final approval with two new conditions: That a higher vegetative fence be installed between the housing complex and the neighboring property of Deborah Ames, and that a bicycle rack, large enough to hold a minimum of 12 bikes, be installed outside the building.

Drawings show the proposed housing complex as two connected structures, each 40 feet by 70 feet.

Commission member Charles Manges asked if the structure was one building or two.

“It is one structure. It is one foundation system … divided by a fire wall” in the middle, Young said.

But attorney Dwight Ferguson, representing Ames, said a person could not enter one end of the building and get to the other end through the interior.

There was more discussion about whether a narrow unnamed alley at the rear of the property is a private alley shared by adjoining property owners, or, since it has been in use perhaps 90 years without restrictions, it should essentially be considered a public road.

Ferguson said B&L doesn’t own the private alley and has no access to the property.

Young said B&L intends to put in a new alleyway after construction of the housing complex is finished, and fully pave and maintain the alley.

Ferguson asked the planning commission to deny the request for final approval and require B&L to seek variances for what he said were deviations from the borough’s zoning ordinance.

“The design standards are a guideline. The zoning ordinance is not a guideline. It’s the law,” Ferguson said.

Final approval for the project, with the two conditions, was granted on a 3-to-1 vote. Members Jeff Grim, Kevin Patrick and Nick Karas voted in favor. Manges voted against final approval and member Betsy Lauber abstained from voting.

The proposed high-density project along Oakland Avenue was designed under the borough’s traditional neighborhood development overlay ordinance, a flexible zone placed over existing zoning lines to allow for specific development goals.

Indiana’s TND overlay zone was implemented in the fall of 2006 in an effort to draw IUP students from rental properties in residential neighborhoods and relocate them in new high-density housing units close to campus.

While some council members and borough officials feel the TND is achieving its intended goal of restoring — slowly — Indiana’s traditional residential neighborhoods, others have been critical of the overlay ordinance, contending that it has created hardships for some homeowners living adjacent to the new high-density student housing projects. One councilman, John Hartman, said the TND overlay has caused what he considers to be the equivalent of spot zoning.

Others have noted that developers have opted to buy and demolish attractive properties, rather than unsightly ones, to make room for their new TND housing structures.

Council, on a split vote in April, approved a moratorium on any new TND building projects until a committee has time to review the ordinance and determine if it is meeting its goals.

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