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City halts housing construction

Amanda Gray | Friday, December 3, 2010


Construction on the Legacy Square townhouse development at the corner of Notre Dame Avenue and Sorin Street has come to a halt over zoning issues.
Developer Robert Cimala, who was also one of the developers of off-campus student housing development Legacy Village, said his property was set to receive final permits from the South Bend Building Commission. But at the beginning of November, the Building Commission said his plans would have to go to a public hearing before the Area Plan Commission (APC) on Dec. 21 to determine if they are in accordance with PUD zoning provisions. 
This process of review could derail the housing project. 
Legacy Square is zoned as a planned unit development (PUD), composed of 32 condominiums in four buildings. The condominiums were developed as high-end housing geared toward single-family, owner-occupied living situations, as opposed to rentals. 
PUD zoning allows for flexibility in building, and they normally contain private residences and common areas. Cimala said that because of the slow economy and a bad housing market, he has decided to rent some of the condominiums to students until he can sell them. 
“I’m not doing anything that anyone else isn’t doing,” Cimala said. “This is a very nice development, and all I’m doing is what I’m allowed to do under the law.”
Attorney Dick Nesbaum said provisions in South Bend zoning codes prohibit more than two unrelated occupants in one home unless the unit is zoned for such occupancy. Legacy Square is zoned to allow no more than two unrelated occupants per condominium.
Nesbaum is the attorney for the Northeast Neighborhood Revitalization Organization (NNRO), a non-profit corporation created for “planning, discussing and coordinating the social, physical and economic revitalization of the Northeast Neighborhood,” according to the Northeast Neighborhood website. The Legacy Square development falls in the Northeast Neighborhood.
“The NNRO is interested in this because they don’t believe the plan does conform [to PUD zoning],” Nesbaum said.  “The intent of the law is to encourage owner-occupied, single family residences. This is not an anti-student situation.”
Bill Stenz, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Council and resident of the Northeast Neighborhood, said he doesn’t generally mind students living in the neighborhoods close to campus. But when pockets of student housing develop problems tend to arise, he said.
“Historically, we didn’t have this high of a concentration of students [in the Northeast Neighborhood],” he said. “Students lived throughout the city. Ten to 15 years ago, landlords bought single family house pockets.”
Stenz said when pockets of student houses spring up, they can bring down the value of neighboring non-student houses. 
Cimala said the object of controversy related to Legacy Square is the local prejudice against Notre Dame students.
“Notre Dame students have been given a bad rap by a lot of people,” he said. 
He said there is nothing in the South Bend zoning law preventing students from living anywhere in town.
“They’re trying to stop me from exercising my legal right to rent each condo to two students until I sell them,” he said. 
Cimala said plans for the Legacy Square development began in July 2007. That month, Cimala went to the APC and requested PUD zoning for his property on Notre Dame Ave. and Sorin St. to build 36 units. The APC asked him to reduce the number of units to 32 to be split between two buildings. The APC later asked him to split the two buildings into four. Cimala agreed.
Cimala said he had to delay the plans until this year because of the general financial downturn. 
“This year, I was able to obtain construction financing, so I could go on with the project,” he said.
Cimala said he had a local architect create the final architecture plan and a civil engineer create the final site plan, which he brought to the Building Commission. 
“We showed them our plans,” he said. “We don’t want to go forward with the project with these plans unless they fit the zoning codes.”
He said he worked with Chuck Bulot, the building commissioner for the City of South Bend, and APC executive director John Byorni, to make changes to the site plans. He received foundation permits in October.
After another round of changes, Cimala said Byorni told him he would get final approval for his final building permit when Bulot sent over initialed site plans to the APC. Instead of final approval, Byorni said he was sending the plans back to a public hearing with the City Council in order to see if the Legacy Square plans are still in accordance with the PUD code in their current state.  
“They think it’s a student housing development and that’s all it’s ever going to be,” Cimala said. “I am building a high-end condominium development.”
The community meeting could have significant implications for the students who signed leases to live in Legacy Square during the 2011-12 academic year.
If the building plans are found to be within guidelines, Cimala will receive his final building permit, and he said he could get the buildings constructed by June 2011, when students could move in on time for the school year. 
If the plans are not approved, however, the end result remains unclear.