By Claire Byun
A new overlay district proposal increases building height along the St. Bernard Avenue corridor to four stories, and developers are hoping to use that new district for an affordable senior housing complex.
The proposal – which City Planning staff have molded for a month – must first be approved by the City Council before any construction can start.
The City Planning Commission approved a modified request from Liberty Bank and Trust Company establish the St. Bernard Overlay District, which increases allotted building height to four stories or 55 feet.
Mike Sherman of Sherman Strategies, a project-based legal firm, told the board the bank wants to build a senior housing facility along St. Bernard Avenue. The original proposal requires an amendment to the zoning ordinance to change maximum building height regulation in both the “C-1” commercial district and “C-2” auto-oriented commercial district – which would have a city-wide impact, but the commission denied that request at a March meeting.
Instead, the St. Bernard Overlay District only impacts mixed-use properties along the corridor, which is bounded by I-10 and North Claiborne to North Dorgenois Street. Developers are aiming to build the senior facility at 1950 St. Bernard Avenue which currently sits unoccupied.
“It’s a tremendous balance between the uniqueness of the corridor and the needs of an affordable housing development,” Sherman told commission members at their meeting last week.
Developers originally sought to change building height from 40 feet and no more than three stories to 65 feet and no more than five stories in both districts. City staff recommended the commission deny that amendment due to its city-wide reach.
“It has to be pretty compelling for me to go against staff,” said Commissioner Walter Isaacson. “I think you’ve worked really hard to make this work, and I think you’re going to get close.”
Under the overlay district, building height caps off at 55 feet and no more than four stories. Staff also modified the proposal to include 50 living units instead of the planned 100 units.
Building 100 units on the lot would increase the density to 185 percent of the allotted space, but Sherman said he supports a 65 percent land reduction to build the 100 units. Sherman said 55 of those units would be priced as affordable.
He also said developers are still hoping for the five-story building so the bottom floor could be used for retail, eateries and other mixed uses.
“We still do request a 65 foot height which gives us the flexibility to do that,” Sherman said.
Last month, the commission approved the bank’s request to amend a land use designation – which would allow both historic use and mixed-use properties – for the project.
Avery Foret, land use attorney with Sherman Strategies, told the commission last month the senior living facility would diversify the St. Bernard Avenue area and provide for a more “walkable” district.
“With the need for more housing in the city overall, the incorporation and/or encouragement of mixed-uses that allow for a residential component is desirable,” Foret said.
The commission approved a reduced street parking requirement of .5 spots per dwelling unit, which reduces the lots density even further.
Robert Steeg, commission chair, said the overlay district is a good compromise for the project – especially since the first request would have changed regulations throughout the city.
“Our concerns were it was too blunt an instrument, it was too broad,” Steeg said. “But with staff modifications, it meets the Master Plan.”
City Council will approve or deny the new overlay district at a future meeting.