COLUMBIA — The Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission recommended Thursday that the City Council deny a rezoning request to accommodate three affordable cottage-style homes on Ridgeway Avenue.
The recommendation agrees with city planner Steve MacIntyre's report. While many commissioners expressed concern that the lot density of three houses was too high, some spoke out in favor of the idea.
"I personally would like to give a developer who's trying to do something outside of the box some leeway," Commissioner Neil Cady said.
While city staff supports the concept of Amir Ziv's cottages for people with low incomes, it recommended denial of the request, arguing that the placement of garages facing the street might set an "undesirable precedent," according to the report.
The garages in an illustration of Ziv's proposal are designed to look like houses, with dormer windows on the roofs.
"Those garages are better looking than about 90 percent of the houses on that block," Ziv said in an interview before the meeting.
The site is a double lot, zoned for one- and two- family residences. Ziv could build two houses without rezoning. His plan, though, is to build three cottage-style houses, which requires zoning used for subdivisions.
"I just kind of came to the conclusion that the only way for a developer like me, who wants to fix up Ward 1 and start knocking some of these old houses down, the only way for us to do it is to build more than one house on these lots," Ziv said.
That strategy, however, also requires that the garages face the street because of the lot's space constraints.
Ziv defended the placement, saying that few houses in the neighborhood have garages and that the ones that do are placed to the side or behind the houses. Although Ziv likes the eclectic look of the neighborhood, he noted that many of the houses were built so long ago that garages weren't necessary.
"In this day and age, a garage is almost mandatory," Ziv said.
Neighbors are wary of other aspects of Ziv's plan.
Dave Dittmer, who lives with his girlfriend and owns the house bordering the rear of the site, worries that the two oak trees in their backyard might be threatened by the close proximity of Ziv's project.
An appraisal by Joshua Behounek of Davey Resource Group estimated the value of the two trees is $68,784 based on tree condition, location and species. The report said the trees may live for "many years and continue to provide numerous benefits," which adds value to the property and neighborhood.
City Arborist Lou Phemister recommended that excavation and heavy machinery should be 30 feet away from the pin oak and 22 feet away from the shingle oak stem for protection of the root systems.
After a meeting among Ziv, Dittmer, Ziv's attorney Kevin Murphy and other residents, a compromise of 20 feet was settled on.
"Really, in all actuality, if I was not an understanding person, and I wanted to play real hard ball, theoretically, those branches that are overhanging my property, I could just cut it and say, ‘Screw you guys,'" Ziv said.
Other concerns include storm water management and the height of the houses. In an effort to be environmentally conscious, Ziv said he wants to use rain barrels and rain gardens. The city is requiring a subdivision-size sewer line, which Ziv thinks is excessive for only three houses.
The zoning request is asking for a 28-foot height variance, meaning the houses could be built that high. They will be built out of polysteel, which has an insulation factor well above the minimum required. Each cottage also would have a residential sprinkler system that may lower the insurance price for the homeowner.
"I think why so many concessions are needed is because our old ordinances are outdated," Commissioner David Brodsky said.
Dittmer likes the idea of revitalizing the First Ward if it's done "with class and done right," but he doesn't want to lose the privacy and quiet atmosphere of the neighborhood.
Mike Clark, who owns rental properties on Ridgeway, sees potential success and failure for Ziv.
"This is the only one I've ever seen in this neighborhood like this. So it seems like it's fairly unique," Clark said. "And I have to give credit to the developer in that he's trying to put more units in, but in a way that they're not something he absolutely couldn't have like a six-plex or multiplex."
"I think there could be unforeseen consequences from it," Clark said. "There is no restriction on what happens to the property once it's been approved and it's built. It could be rental, (or) it could be single-family sold."
Ziv knows the situation of the real estate market and how much small mistakes could cost him in this project, which is why he insists on rezoning the lot.
"If I can divide the cost of the land in three and build really neat cottages for $70 to $75 per square foot, then I can do it," Ziv said. He originally wanted four cottages, but pared it down to three.
The commissioners did reach a tentative consensus that if the garages were moved or removed, the plan may be approved.
Ziv is optimistic that his project, if approved, will help, rather than hinder.
"It's going to be a new concept, they're going to be brand-new, they're going to be cute, they're going to be efficient, and they're going to be low-income. So, I think when you put all of those together, it's going to be a big, big plus."