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An inflexible code puts small landlord’s business at risk

Monday, March 28, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Prospective salon tenants have been knocking on the door of Stephen Straus’ charming house-turned-office at 3402 Kerbey Lane for months, only to be turned away because of the city’s rigid land development rules. 

Though a salon would be an ideal tenant for Straus, the property’s Neighborhood Office (NO) zoning doesn’t allow personal services use, which is the category salons fall under. In response, Straus has forked over thousands in fees to the city – not to mention money for a civil engineer – to rezone the property to General Office (GO), which does allow salons.

Straus said the current zoning has forced the property to sit vacant in the past. Small businesses looking for office space can’t afford the rent, and salons that could afford the space aren’t allowed to operate there.

“We’re asking for this zoning change because we can’t afford to have the property be vacant for extended periods of time, given all the property tax increases we’ve experienced,” Straus told the Planning Commission, which discussed the zoning change request on Tuesday. “It took almost a year to find our current tenant because of zoning restrictions,” he said.

Though the zoning change would have a 40-foot height limit to discourage future redevelopment on the site, the Bryker Woods Neighborhood Association still opposes change for fear of a bigger building down the line. Joyce Basciano, a member of the organization, argued that a structure built to GO zoning standards would be too intense for the neighborhood. “The building coverage, the (floor area ratio), the impervious cover, the height, would be highly detrimental to the area and unsafe for the residents and the school children who live in the area,” Basciano said. 

Basciano offered Straus a compromise: The neighborhood association would support Limited Office (LO) zoning with the same site development standards as NO zoning, allowing Straus to file a conditional use permit for salon use (Straus cannot file a conditional use permit for a salon under the current NO zoning). “It’s a win-win,” Basciano said. 

But Straus and his land use lawyer, David Hartman, don’t see the offer as a win-win. A conditional use permit would take several more months and cost thousands more, which “just doesn’t make logical sense” without a tenant who is willing to wait for the permit, Hartman said.

The Planning Commission was of no help to Straus. The commission voted 10-0-1, with Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstaining, to recommend LO zoning with NO site standards. 

While Commissioner Awais Azhar moved to recommend GO zoning with LO site development standards – saving Straus from needing a conditional use permit – his motion did not get enough votes. “This is like a mom-and-pop shop here,” Azhar said. “I don’t want to make them go through a conditional use permit just because we don’t have the flexibility within our code.”

Commissioner Grayson Cox, who made the motion for LO zoning, argued that GO zoning is not appropriate for a single-family neighborhood setting. While Cox did acknowledge the time and money required to get a CUP, that did not justify GO zoning for him. “I just don’t think that that’s a good reason to allow General Office,” Cox said.

It is now up to City Council to make the final decision.

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