Charleston zoning change proposal would allow more under 400-square-foot ‘micro’ apartments | News

Living alone on the Charleston peninsula is notoriously expensive, but a proposed adjustment to the city’s zoning laws could provide more options.

Developer Jeffrey Roberts is advocating for an amendment to the city’s land-use code that will make it more cost-effective to build under 400-square-foot studios on the peninsula. The idea gained initial approval from Charleston City Council on March 22.

Roberts, managing member of JRR Development, is proposing the city decrease the number of parking spots required to build a new apartment complex if its units are between 250 and 375 square feet.

He wants the city to require one parking space for every third unit in such buildings. Reducing the amount of parking required allows developers to save money and fit a higher number of units on a smaller lot, he said.

“We are creating more price-approachable housing for people who don’t need a car,” he said.

These types of units are built to accommodate a sitting and sleeping area and a kitchenette. While some already exist on the peninsula, the city’s parking requirements make them harder to build at a profit, Roberts said.

Given their size, he said they likely rent at around 30 percent less than a 500- or 600-square-foot studio. He anticipates developers like himself marketing “micro units” at around $1,300 a month on the peninsula. 

“The tradeoff would be that you would live in something smaller but you’re close to everything,” he said.

A targeted approach

Instead of petitioning the Charleston Planning Commission and City Council for a special exemption to the parking requirements for one specific project, Roberts is trying to get the city to adopt a broader policy addressing the issue. Although uncommon, any city resident can legally propose a change to city zoning policy, city Planning Director Robert Summerfield said.

Roberts has at least one project in the works that would utilize the reduced parking requirements if they pass. He wants to build an apartment complex on Spring Street adjacent to the Medical University of South Carolina with about 100 units and 40 parking spaces. Those parking spaces would come with an individual cost to the renter.

If the parking requirement reduction gets final approval it will only apply in areas of the peninsula that already have a “mixed-use,” designation in the city’s land use code. These are areas where the city allows for the development of large, residential and commercial-use buildings and developers are required to set aside 20 percent of apartments for those making 80 percent of the area median income or AMI.

For Charleston, 80 percent of the AMI is $46,000 per year for a single-person household, according to the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Developers do have options to bypass that requirement.

Under current zoning laws those buildings are required to offer one parking space per market-rate unit and one parking space for every two affordable units.

Roberts’ proposed reduction in parking requirements to one space for every third micro-unit, also includes a stipulation that such complexes can only be built within three-quarters of a mile from a full-service grocery store and one-quarter of a mile from a bus stop. They will have to include bike racks as well.

“This wouldn’t work well to plop this in the center of a low-density neighborhood like Harleston Village,” he said.

With rent and home prices rising across the city, officials have been stressing the importance of making housing available for people with a range of incomes — from fully subsidized housing to housing that people with a teacher’s or a firefighter’s salary could afford.

“We have to unleash the private sector on this problem so that normal people can live on the peninsula,” said Councilman Ross Appel at the March 22 council meeting.

The Charleston Housing Authority, for example, is shifting from a model of building apartment complexes that exclusively house people in a specific income bracket to building complexes that offer units at a mix of price points.

While new micro units, when offered at market value, may not be affordable for residents with lower incomes, they could fill a need for some of the middle-tier inventory the peninsula lacks.

Coming to terms with cars

While reducing parking requirements might increase the amount of housing available on the peninsula, skeptics of such policies say they can lead to more street parking in surrounding areas.

“The risk comes in when we are dealing with theory,” said John Gaber, chair of the Department of City Planning and Real Estate Development at Clemson University. “In theory if you provide less parking, people will have less cars, but the data says the jury is out.”

To manage that concern, Roberts said his proposal includes a provision that prohibits tenants of such buildings from applying for city parking passes.

Summerfield said he sees promise in the idea.

“It really does address the need for development that has mobility alternatives like transit and grocery stores and other daily needs nearby,” he said.

But he voiced some concern over the overall impact of reducing parking requirements more broadly.

“I am not sure about the size of the units and the nature of our transit to support this right now,” he said.

The idea has gained the endorsement of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. Josh Dix, government affairs director for the association, said it will be a key component in encouraging broader transit access in the city so that eventually, it will be easier for more residents to get around without a car.

“With the (Lowcountry Rapid Transit) coming online in the future, we need this type of housing to support the ridership and we need the ridership to support the housing. These are the types of ideas we applaud,” Dix said at the council meeting.

Roberts’ proposal was approved by the Planning Commission. City Council approved its first reading March 22 but also agreed to have the council’s Committee on Community Development review the details of the ordinance before it goes for a final vote.

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