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With second thoughts, duplex project advances

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It may have taken a couple of years, but the Historic Landmark Commission has given its blessing to plans for four new duplexes on the lot of a historic home in the North University neighborhood.

Cater Joseph was asking permission to demolish an outbuilding, garage and carport in order to construct the duplexes at 305 East 34th St. He plans to rehabilitate the historic Steck House, which is located on the lot.

Joseph said that he has been working with the Certificate of Appropriateness Committee since early 2013. He presented several versions of his site plan, revised with input from the committee. He said the current revision allows the Steck House to be the dominant feature, and that he has worked to make the duplexes compatible with the neighborhood.

Commissioner Terri Myers said the current plan was “a great improvement.”

Chair Laurie Limbacher seemed to disagree, and said the difficulty of the project was trying to break “fundamentally big buildings into small buildings that are still not all that small and not all that residential in character.”

Though the building had been redesigned as several buildings based on the committee’s recommendations, Limbacher said that she believed one building was a better solution and called the committee’s earlier suggestion “a wrong turn.”

“It was rejected early on. Maybe I rejected it. I don’t know,” said Limbacher. “I just feel like despite everyone’s goodwill and best efforts, we still don’t have a great project.”

Joseph said the committee had rejected the plan, and now he has been working on a site plan based on the committee recommendations for about eight months.

Offering the idea of a work session to go over the site plan in more detail, Limbacher suggested combining two of the four duplexes to move it farther from the Steck House. However, Commissioners Andrea Roberts, Dan Leary and Myers all said they preferred the current plan.

In the end, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the plan to build four duplexes. Though Limbacher expressed reservations about the design, she said she would vote in favor given the history.

“Hopefully, we will do better on a future case,” said Limbacher.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the demolition of the outbuildings as well. Commissioners John Rosato, Mary Jo Galindo and Leslie Wolfenden-Guidry were absent.

The plan also faced opposition from the neighborhood, with several people speaking out against the proposed duplexes, including resident Mary Ingle. Though she had no issues with the demolition of the outbuildings, Ingle said the duplexes did not reflect the cultural or architectural history of the North University Neighborhood. Ingle also said that the planned duplexes would undermine the significance of the Steck House and were out-of-scale.

“Personally, I think this configuration looks like a fraternity compound,” said Ingle. “This project is maximizing the number of units in a duplicitous way. You may not realize it, but the site plan has, along with bedrooms, designed studies with closets. In meetings with Mr. Joseph, he stated that these studies will be used as bedrooms so he can get the number to work.”

Ingle said that made the “site plan impossible to evaluate” and that such a plan would run afoul of parking regulations.

Neighbor Robert Taylor said he tried to explain the design standards to Joseph, but he continued to design “the same three units” that did not fit with the character of the historic area.

“We have done everything we can to make this project acceptable,” said Joseph. “It doesn’t matter what we do. As long as it’s a student rental, it’s going to be opposed. It’s a few blocks from the university, it’s surrounded by apartments, and we intend to build rental properties on the property.”

In explaining his support for the project, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that the plan would not only provide density for the neighborhood, but also rehab the Steck House, which he said “has been in a severe state of disrepair for many years.”

The Steck House has been operating as a halfway house for the past 40 years. Joseph said the house is currently in very poor condition and had a lot of rotting wood.


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