Another mixed-use building with apartments and workspaces is headed to Garden City’s east end, but it didn’t get voted in with a round of applause.
Last week, Garden City City Council voted 2-2, with Mayor John Evans breaking the tie with a vote in favor, to approve The Sonder at 210 E 35th Street. The five-story project features 15 apartments ranging from studios up to three-bedroom units, seven work spaces for artists, and a ground-floor retail space arranged around a courtyard for visitors and tenants to use to socialize. It’s the latest string of mixed-use projects with live-work spaces, apartments, restaurants, and other amenities coming into the area near the Boise River and the Greenbelt.
The tentative vote to approve the project came after city council members spent more than an hour combing over the fine details of city code, the project plans, and a recent court case against the city to try and find any way they could legally deny it. But, after the city attorney told the council to use “extreme caution” to try and vote down the project, three members of the council begrudgingly approved it.
Project developers Cathy Sewell, Brie Katz, and Matthew Cameron Clark argued The Sonder would bring vitality to the neighborhood, support the arts and allow people to live without having to rely on their own cars. On the other hand, community members in opposition and city council members felt it lacked the necessary parking and would tower above the rest of the neighborhood, sticking out like a sore thumb due to its height.
“We’re in a tough spot,” City Council President James Page said, nearing the end of the lengthy deliberation.
What is the proposal?
Instead of putting the smaller than 500 square foot workspaces connected to the apartments, this design split them into two different amenities for lease flexibility for tenants to choose to rent one or the other, or potentially both kinds of spaces.
It includes 34 bike parking spaces and a space for an electric vehicle car share, which will be available for any tenant of the building to use on a reservation basis. The rooftop, with a greenhouse, will also be accessible by tenants as an amenity.
The biggest item of contention with the project, though, is the number of parking spaces. The project includes 17 enclosed parking spaces for residents, one for each apartment, plus an ADA spot and the spot for the car share. Garden City staff said this is eleven spaces shy of what the code requires for residents of the building, not counting any spaces that could be required for the workspaces in the building or the retail store.
This project is too tall and is laid out in a way that wouldn’t allow it to use the Surel Mitchell Live Work Create district overlay that used to be in the area prior to City Council repealing it earlier this year. The repeal came after developer Jason Jones successfully sued the city for denying a project proposal in the neighborhood and a judge ruled the parking code regulations in the overly were overly vague and subjective.
But, even though the overlay wasn’t used for this project, Sewell said its vision for the area of allowing mixed-use spaces for artists to live and work was what informed the design and number of parking spaces.
“Staff indicated because we weren’t in the Surel Mitchell district it wasn’t applicable, but as we looked at the criteria it did provide a place for us to look to what’s happening in the vicinity and the use within the area,” she said. “We had intent in the code of what is supposed to happen in these districts and that helped guide us to create our own parking demand analysis.”
‘Almost a slap in the face’
This project might not have as much parking as Garden City wants, but council was still effectively prevented from using those rules to turn down the project.
Sewell, Katz and Clark submitted the application for The Sonder before Jones’ lawsuit was decided in the Fourth District. In response to the Judge’s decision in the Jones case, Garden City decided to repeal the Surel Mitchell district overlay as well as rewrite part of its parking code to remove vague language and passages that say final decision on parking for some projects would be up to the city planning official instead of giving a specific number of spaces required.
But, because of the timing of The Sonder’s application, council had to use the old, vague version of the code. City Attorney Charlie Wadams said the Judge’s decision and criticism of the city’s old code means it very likely would not stand up in court if they chose to use the lack of parking spaces as a reasoning to deny the project. Council also couldn’t say the project was too tall for the area because the city has no height limits for the area.
“I would advise extreme caution if the council is leaning towards denial,” he said.
This put Council Members in a bind because none of them liked the project or its number of parking spaces, but they couldn’t find a single requirement that would stand up in court to use as an argument for why it couldn’t go forward. City Council Member Teresa Jorgensen was especially frustrated as an advocate for more parking spaces in Garden City after some residents complained.
“It’s almost a slap in the face the way it disregards parking requirements,” Jorgensen said. “It’s a way to use and abuse a deficient code and I had concerns when we granted (parking) waivers on the other developments (in the area) and I believe it lands us here where a developer finds a way to exploit a deficient code.”
Council initially decided they wanted to try and find a way to turn down the project, but after going through each criterion one by one they voted on the project and three of the five felt it was best to approve it and avoid a possible legal challenge.
“I know where you’re trying to go with this and I don’t know how to guide you to get there,” Evans said. “I’m not sure (a legally defensible reason) is here.”