Council approves allowing affordable housing development on Lucy Drive

An updated rendering shows the footprint for the 80-unit affordable housing development Woda Cooper Company of Columbus, Ohio, plans to build on a 4.7-acre plot on Lucy Drive.

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

The Harrisonburg City Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday night for a proposed affordable apartment complex on Lucy Drive — another development councilmembers say they hope might ease the city’s housing crunch.

The proposed Simms Pointe complex would be an 80-unit apartment development in a pair of three-story buildings. The one- to three-bedroom apartments would be aimed at people earning below the average median income in the area. The developer, Woda Cooper Company of Columbus, Ohio, plans to apply for a federal tax credit aimed at encouraging construction of affordable housing.

Several councilmembers said such an apartment complex could fill a vast need by providing housing for households making $30,000-$55,000. Those households have been increasingly squeezed out of the city’s housing market.

Councilmember Chris Jones said one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in an affordable development can address the “sweet spot for the workforce.”

“We’ve got to find a spot to take care of those folks who aren’t part of the Great Resignation – who want to work,” Jones said. “And we’ve got to find a place for those people to live.”

The proposed development, near where Lucy Drive intersects with Evelyn Byrd Avenue, required the council to change the zone to high-density residential from medium-density residential The council approved the changes, 4-1, with councilmember George Hirschmann voting in opposition.

The approval came with some conditions, including that the development wouldn’t allow for households made up of only full-time students. The council also will require Woda Cooper to build a six-foot-high fence and a buffer of trees along the back of the property between the development and the backyards of homes on Emerald Drive.  

Nick Surak, senior vice president of development at Woda Cooper, told the council that a renter on the low end of the scale — someone making 30% of the average median income — would pay $280-a-month for a one-bedroom unit. That rent would increase to $785 for a renter who earns 80% of the average median income.

Monthly rent for two-bedroom units would range from $330-$950. And three-bedrooms units would range from $380-$1,035 per month.

The council, which met virtually for the third straight meeting because of COVID-19 cases in the area, received 20 calls during the public comment period from residents in the surrounding neighborhood of Emerald Drive, Blue Stone Hills Drive, Diamond Court and Crystal Lane. Many of the residents who called in said they objected to the zoning change in the 4.7-acre plot of land. Some cited concerns of increased traffic. Others referred to a lack of sidewalks. Several said the three-story buildings would change the look of the neighborhood.

The more than 90 minutes of calls didn’t seem to change any councilmembers’ votes.  

Hirschmann said both before and after the public comment period that he was sympathetic to the residents’ concerns.

“I think with the numbers that are involved and the people responding for the area, that they deserve to have a say in what’s going on in their neighborhood,” Hirschmann said.

But other council members said the not-in-my-backyard sentiment frequently comes up in response to larger developments.

“It doesn’t really matter where we take it. There’s always going to be opposition,” Vice Mayor Sal Romero said.

Mayor Deanna Reed said Harrisonburg continues to change as more people move to the city and neighborhoods need to be more diverse, including socioeconomically.

“We have to spread affordable housing throughout the city. It can’t be segregated in one area,” Reed said. “As soon as we take it somewhere else, there’s an issue. And that’s not who we are as a city.”

This approval came after the council greenlit at its last meeting a high-end apartment complex in what is now part of the Regal Harrisonburg’s parking lot between University Boulevard and Evelyn Byrd Avenue. 

Also at the meeting:

–       Interim City Manager Ande Banks floated a proposal to the council for a 5% mid-year pay increase for city workers, as well as a one-time retention bonus of $3,000 for full-time workers and $1,500 for part-time workers. The proposal aims to help stem turnover in the city’s workforce. Banks said some of the money for the one-time bonuses would come from federal recovery funds, while the salary increases would be covered by “better-than-projected” revenue, as well as savings from open positions. The council will consider the measure at its March 8 meeting.

–       The council approved a measure allowing it to return to in-person meetings next month after shifting online in mid-January because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in the community. The emergency order will end March 1, a week before the council’s next meeting on March 8.

–       The council declared March 2022 as Brain Injury Awareness Month, as well as Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month. The council also proclaimed March to be Youth Art Month.

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