A plan to redevelop the University of Delaware’s Dickinson dorm site into a new, private student-housing complex will head to city council with an unfavorable recommendation.
Citing concerns about traffic, density and the lack of green space, the planning commission on Tuesday voted 4-2 to recommend council not approve the proposed project. By law, the planning commission’s recommendation is non-binding.
“The density is far too high,” Commissioner Bob Stozek said. “I don’t think this plan is environmentally sound.”
The unfavorable recommendation was unexpected, as the plan is considered a “by-right” project that does not require a rezoning, special-use permit or variances.
“It’s allowed,” City Solicitor Paul Bilodeau said. “Unlike many applications, there are no requests for variances. This is a code-compliant application.”
The property, located at the corner of Hillside and Apple roads, is currently zoned for university use, but under a little-known provision in city code, it will automatically convert to a zoning of garden apartments when UD sells the land.
The project does require approval of a major subdivision and a comprehensive development plan amendment, the latter of which Bilodeau said in this case is largely a formality needed to bring the comp plan in line with the new zoning.
“We’re surprised by the vote,” Michael Hoffman, a lawyer for the developer, College Town Communities, said in an interview Tuesday evening. “We’ll take the comments, convene as a team and be ready to present to council.”
College Town Communities’ proposal calls for building 46 three-bedroom townhouses as well as 45 apartments spread between four three-story buildings. The project would contain a mix of two, three and four-bedroom units for a total of 320 beds.
Hoffman noted that the project would have only half the capacity of Dickinson and that the buildings would be one story shorter than the old dorms.
He added that his client considered other designs that would have needed variances, including one with only half the required parking, but decided to switch to the by-right plan in light of concerns from the adjacent Oaklands Swim Club and others.
The $30 million project meets the parking requirement of 240 spaces and includes additional spaces that it shares with the swim club as part of a long-standing easement.
Based in Kutztown, Pa., College Town Communities operates student-housing complexes near Kutztown University, Shippensburg University and three Penn State campuses. Here in Newark, the firm recently took over management of the Varsity Townhomes on Wilbur Street.
The Newark Planning Department wrote in a report that the project would not have a negative impact on nearby properties and dismissed concerns about an increase in traffic.
“With the assumption that residents will be walking or taking a bus to class and the normal car use of students is not during peak traffic times, this development is not expected to have any significant effect on city traffic,” the department wrote.
However, several planning commissioners and residents disagreed with those assertions Tuesday.
Commissioner Stacy McNatt said she uses Hillside Road several times per day and believes it already has too much traffic.
“It is slightly painful at all times of the day,” McNatt said.
Cathy Johnston, a resident of the Cherry Hill neighborhood, agreed.
“The traffic to me is a big concern,” Johnston said. “I realize it’s a fact of life, but I really think it should be a consideration before you approve all of this.”
Stozek said the plan has too many impervious surfaces.
“The entire parcel is basically rooftops and parking lots,” Stozek said. “There is very little green space, and certainly no recreational space or gathering space for the people living there.”
Commissioner Will Hurd said the project feels like “an outlier” compared to Oaklands, the neighborhood of single-family houses located across Hillside Road.
“I’m having trouble with the high-density usage here,” Hurd said.
Oaklands resident Sheila Anderson expressed concern that several mature oak trees will be cut down to make way for the apartments.
“There’s so much impervious surface on this development, it’s just incredible,” Anderson said. “It’s contradictory that trees that are good for us are somehow not showing up where these parking areas are.”
Bill Slade, whose property backs up to Hillside Road across from the Dickinson site, said he and his wife are worried about light pollution from the new apartments.
“This is as personal as it gets in terms of affecting our lives,” Slade said. “It’s my strong preference not to have to buy blackout curtains for my bedroom.”
Ultimately, the planning commission voted 4-2 against the major subdivision, with Stozek, Hurd, McNatt and Bob Cronin opposed and Alan Silverman and Karl Kadar in favor. Tom Wampler was absent.
“I see this project as a transition from the heavy urbanization on South Main Street and the railroad into a residential area,” Silverman said.
He added that he doesn’t see traffic as a concern on Hillside Road, which he described as a “collector road.”
“It’s designed to have heavy traffic,” he said. “It’s designed to have backups.”
Kadar said the project is a positive thing for the area.
“It meets all the zoning requirements, fits the comprehensive plan and in my opinion is a major improvement over what we have there today,” he said.
The commission did vote 5-1 in favor of amending the comprehensive development plan from university use to high-density residential, with only Hurd opposed.
A date for council consideration has not yet been announced.