Whether Columbia should change its zoning laws to allow private student dormitories in some commercial zoning areas is causing concern among some neighborhood residents and caution among City Council members.
In light of plans by Atlanta-based Peak Campus Development to build a $50 million student housing complex at Gervais and Harden streets, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has proposed an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow student-targeted apartments on that property and any other C-3 general commercial zoning district in the city.
The amendment would also decrease the required buffer zone to 300 feet between a new student apartment complex in a C-3 district and a residential zoning area if there is an active railroad track, commercial zoning or arterial street between the two.
Residents have expressed concern about the reduced buffer zone and the possibility of increased traffic near low-density residential areas.
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Before voting “yes” Tuesday in the first of two required votes for the amendment to be approved, City Council heard those concerns from some residents who questioned the merits of changing the zoning laws for the entire city.
No one spoke in opposition to the Peak project itself – University Hill neighborhood president Tom Gottshall, in fact, said his neighborhood is very much in favor of the project. But several people cautioned council to consider the effect that a citywide ordinance change could have on other areas.
Kit Smith, who lives in Wales Garden, between Five Points and Rosewood Drive, suggested that instead of giving across-the-board allowance to student apartments in C-3 districts, they instead be allowed only under special exception in those districts. That would still require a change to the ordinance.
“That gives the public an extra layer of protection in knowing what’s coming,” she said. “It would seem to me that when you’re going to have something this major coming in close to a neighborhood, it shouldn’t just be an outright permitted use.”
Ron Burns, president of the Shandon Neighborhood Council, said student apartments would not be a good fit near his neighborhood, to the west of Wales Garden. He said they could cause increased traffic along the Rosewood Drive corridor. There are some stretches and pockets of C-3 zoning along Rosewood and Devine Street near the neighborhood.
Jeff Githens, vice president of Peak Campus Development, countered that in general, projects like his proposed one may actually decrease traffic by drawing residents within a walkable distance of the downtown core.
Changing the C-3 ordinance would likely have little overall effect on the city’s development patterns, city planning director Krista Hampton said, because most areas that would be affected by the allowance of student apartments, such as the Rosewood area, would not be probable locations for them anyway.
If the city does decide to change its zoning ordinance to accommodate the Peak project and allow others in C-3 districts, it will not allow any other applications for student apartments in C-3 districts after Jan. 1, until the planned rewrite of the city’s entire zoning ordinance is completed next year. Hampton said she is not aware of any other proposed student housing projects in current C-3 districts.
Council will have its final hearing and vote on the proposal next month.