The residents of Fort Wayne's Frances Slocum neighborhood did not quietly accept the city Plan Commission's 6-3 decision Monday to grant a setback waiver to a planned affordable-housing complex slated for the former Frances Slocum Elementary School.
At one point, the small group of residents – some of whom had attended a public hearing regarding the project last week – had to be quieted by Commission Chairwoman Connie Haas Zuber as the body deliberated.
Keller Development is partnering with local anti-poverty nonprofit Brightpoint to develop and manage more than 40 affordable-housing units on Fort Wayne's near-north side.
The proposal does not need to go before the Fort Wayne City Council for final approval.
Residents opposed to the project believe their neighborhood will be marred by drugs, crime and violence that they say accompany apartment complexes geared toward low-income residents, driving property values down. Other concerns raised last week included a lack of green space and parking for residents, including those who will live in several units designated for tenants with physical disabilities.
More than 50 attended the public hearing, about 20 of whom spoke to the Plan Commission about their disapproval. A handful were in the audience Monday.
Despite numerous public comments against the project, the Plan Commission could not legally deny the site's primary development plan because the land has been zoned for multiple-family use since 1984, Commission Attorney Bob Ehrenman said. The only component up to the commission's discretion was a setback waiver for the existing building, because the city's zoning ordinances have changed since the building was constructed in the 1930s.
If someone wanted to use the building as Parkview Hospital – the site's previous owner – intended to in 1984, Ehrenman said the Plan Commission wouldn't even need to grant a setback waiver.
“Certainly, if someone wanted to go in and use it for what it was approved for in 1984, they could use it without any review approval at all,” Ehrenman said.
Commissioner Don Schmidt, a Fort Wayne City Councilman in 1984, said although he does not remember the specific discussion surrounding the zoning change, the council did not intend for the land to be used for a low-income apartment complex.
Senior Planner Michelle Wood said Parkview Hospital requested the multiple-family residential zoning because city ordinance allowed certain commercial uses, as long as they were approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals.
“The reason that became (multiple family) was to allow the businesses to go in there, rather than make them into commercial zoning,” Schmidt said. “The intent at the time was not to have apartments ... in that area. It was strictly to utilize a very historical and good-looking building for positive purposes.”
Wood said she does not know how long the building has been vacant.
But even denying the waiver would not necessarily have stopped the project, Ehrenman said. Keller Development and Brightpoint could still proceed, but the development simply would not have been able to use the existing structure.
Speaking before the vote, City Councilman Paul Ensley, a member of the Plan Commission, said he sympathizes with the development's neighbors. Ensley said he would not want this development in his neighborhood and added that he does not support subsidized housing at all. However, Ensley said he couldn't vote against the waiver because by law, the Plan Commission's hands are tied.
After the meeting, John Nash, who said he lives two doors down from the proposed development, said he wished the Plan Commission would have tabled the proposal for another month and spent some time gathering information about the impact of affordable housing like Slocum Pointe. Nash said he thinks the project is shoddy and rushed, without any real thought behind it.
“I felt that (the commission) just didn't have all of the data that they wanted to have,” Nash said. “It would have been so much nicer if they had simply tabled this until the next meting until they could review other developments like this and come into the next meeting with hard facts.”
Representatives from New Generation Management, the Keller Development affiliate that will manage the complex, have said the firm has rigorous background-check requirements and a three-strikes rule for problem tenants.