The city Zoning Board of Adjustment, a quasi-judicial board, heard arguments pro and con for a proposed multi-suite residential facility on Sidney Street Dec. 9. The Board hearing took place at the Civic Building on Ross Street, Downtown.
The proposal by businessman Dean McHolme of Elizabeth calls for the conversion of a former assisted living apartment building, located about one-half block from the Ormsby recreation center and swimming pool. The businessman wants to convert the building into a residential complex for college students. McHolme represents a company that owns the building called Sidney Street Associates, LP.
McHolme said there is a strong market for student housing in the city because of the growing enrollments at major universities such as Pitt, Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon.
McHolme said he has been in negotiations with one of the local colleges, he declined to say which one, to arrange for student housing in a six-story structure at 2112 Sidney Street.
The building is a block from the Birmingham Bridge, the route to Oakland from the South Side. South Side residents have complained for many years about the problems caused by irresponsible college students who temporarily live in the neighborhood.
McHolme plans to convert the former senior citizen convalescent center into 54 two-bedroom suites. The suites would share bathroom and kitchen facilities on each floor. To obtain a permit for the building conversion, McHolme must prove he can provide adequate parking space for the residents of the building.
McHolme claims he has 57 available spaces. Ten of the spaces are located across the street from the front entrance of the building. There are 20 additional spaces located less than a block from the entrance on the same side of Sidney Street. McHolme said he owns both parking lots. The other 27 spaces are located on a surface parking lot on Wharton Street, near the 2000 block of Sidney. It is believed these spaces are within 1,000 feet of the apartment building's main entrance, a requirement for the adequate parking stipulation for the granting of the multi-use permit.
The Wharton parking lot is available to McHolme through an annual lease with the city parking authority.
Residents of the area believe putting dozens of college students in this building would ruin the neighborhood because of increased traffic, parking, litter and noise problems. The residents fear there may be no way to control the number of students living in the building. They believe the 57 parking spaces would not be enough for the students because of friends and classmates expected to regularly visit the building. They believe many of the visits will be over-night stays.
McHolme says the 57 parking spaces will be more than adequate. He cited the example of 72 college students who live in a similar apartment building on Fourth Ave., Downtown. He said only three students drive cars among the residents of that building.
Those who oppose the conversion plan also maintain that the employees required to operate the facility (managers, security personnel and custodians) will add to the parking problem.
Councilman Gene Ricciardi called for a South Side Community Council meeting two days prior to the hearing to organize the residents opposed to the facility.
About 20 residents appeared at the hearing. Three citizens sat with Ricciardi at the Zoning Board of Adjustment table during the hearing. Ricciardi sat next to McHolme and one of his business associates at the hearing.
Those accompanying Ricciardi at the table were Wanda Jankoski of Wrights Way (located behind the Sidney Street apartment building), Eric Marchbein, who resides in another part of the city but owns business property at 2107 Sidney Street; and Elaine Luther, a college professor who resides just a few doors from the apartment building on Sidney.
Ricciardi said a main concern of the residents has been a lack of communication between them and McHolme. Ricciardi said the South Side Community Council attempted to have the developer meet with the group in a public meeting, but their offer was refused.
McHolme claims he was not aware such a meeting with the residents was proposed to him.
“I apologize for any rejection not to meet with the South Side group,” McHolme said. “I was not aware that there was any offer to meet. It's not like I am trying to hide something. I'll work with you.”
Many residents at the meeting two days prior to the hearing said they feared that the rules regulating the building's activity would eventually go ignored and 54 suites could end up housing 200 students.
“When you mention student housing to people, everybody thinks of Animal House and loud music, but we are going to operate a tight ship,” said McHolme, noting the Fourth Avenue building is handled in this manner.
“You will always have a few bad apples for any type of rental housing, but we'll work with the schools to alleviate these problems,” said McHolme, noting bad behavior among tenants is not exclusive to college students.
Marchbein noted he does not want the building to remain vacant in the coming years. The front entrance of the building is strewn with litter that has blown onto the property, plus there is unsightly red graffiti written near the entrance.
As a resident living behind the building, Jankoski said her biggest concern is the large vehicles recently parked behind the building for several days. She said a large generator made a great deal of noise while emptying the building of debris and rubbish into trucks to haul it away.
She does not want this to be a habitual problem when the building is under renovation over a period of months. Not only does this create a major noise problem for the neighborhood, the large trucks driving down the narrow alley known as Wrights Way, would block the street's access, according to Jankoski. She noted that emergency vehicles frequently travel on Wrights Way, along with the Access transportation service and vehicles from the Meals on Wheels program.
Ricciardi with the residents and McHolme agreed to meet to work out there differences in a public forum within the next month.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment set up a continuance of the hearing. It is scheduled for Jan. 27 at 9 a.m. at the Civic Building on Ross Street.