City planners hoping to spur housing development in the West Side will see their plan go before Charleston City Council on Monday, where proposed changes to the city’s zoning code will be voted on.
The bill council will vote on Monday would create a Neighborhood Reinvestment Overlay Zoning District on the West Side, running east to west from Stockton Street to Glenwood Avenue, and from Kanawha Boulevard north to Washington Street West. A small sliver from Glenwood Avenue to Elm Street is also included.
By allowing duplexes where single-family homes now sit, triplexes and quadplexes on corner lots, waiving some parking requirements and decreasing the distance homes sit apart, the Charleston Planning Department believes zoning changes can revamp housing construction on the West Side. Existing city code only allows construction of single-family homes in this area.
City Planning Director Dan Vriendt said for what it now costs to construct a single-family home on the West Side, it’s easier to look elsewhere in Charleston for housing.
“Construction is about $130 per square foot for new construction. If you have a vacant lot on the West Side that’s 25-foot wide, and you wanted to put a 1,000-square-foot house on it, it’s going to cost you about $130,000 to put a house on that lot. And for that kind of money, you can buy a used house just about in any neighborhood in the city. Financially, it doesn’t make sense, and that’s why no one’s building in the neighborhood,” he said.
Vriendt said the West Side has the highest proportion of 25-foot lots than anywhere in Charleston. He said the city was awarded a grant that can be put toward hiring architects to design basic floor plans for duplexes and larger units.
The floor plans would be free to the public, and since the city knows they already comply with code, builders can get an expedited permit.
Under existing code, the side of a house must sit at least 5 feet from a neighbor’s property line. Vriendt said by decreasing that distance to 3 feet, floor plans become more flexible.
“If you have a 25-foot lot, and you have a 5-foot required setback, that leaves you with a 15-foot-wide house. You subtract the wall thickness, you’re down to about 13 feet. It’s real hard to design a floor plan around 13 feet. But if we reduced the setbacks down to 3 feet, then that house gets a little bit wider,” he said.
Every duplex and single-family home built under the proposed code is required to have a front porch facing the street, Vriendt said.
West Side residents have raised concerns these changes could lead to overcrowding in the neighborhood. Vriendt said density is not something that should be feared, nor are these changes a drastic increase in density.
The city hopes by increasing the population, corner businesses can make a comeback in the neighborhood.
“On many of these corners, there are old commercial buildings sitting vacant, and if we can get more density down here, then those mom and pop and stores can come back and thrive,” Vriendt said.
The proposed changes would also give developers or homebuilders the option to waive parking requirements for single-family homes and duplexes; existing code requires it.
“That $7,000 or $8,000 it would cost you to build a parking pad, we would rather you be able to put that toward your mortgage, or have a cheaper mortgage,” Vriendt said.
At a public meeting last week, West Side residents and the planning department discussed the changes and what it could mean for the community. Residents spent a good portion of the meeting, however, voicing frustration toward the city for the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority’s inaction on the West Side Community Renewal Plan.
Residents asked that the city consider delaying the vote on zoning changes until a clear, detailed plan to improve conditions of the West Side is worked out.
Jesse Richardson, West Virginia University’s lead land use attorney, wrote in a legal opinion that CURA’s 2019 draft plan to amend the existing 2008 West Side plan would “slightly more likely than not” be found to be in noncompliance with West Virginia urban renewal law.
In a phone interview, Richardson said if the 2008 West Side Community Renewal Plan reads like the 2019 draft plan — which doesn’t include specific costs or revenues for redevelopment projects — it would also be unlikely that it’s in compliance with the law.
City Chief of Staff Matt Sutton said the city zoning changes have nothing to do with the CURA plan, and change on the West Side is needed as soon as possible.
“I think we can all agree that the West Side has been neglected for decades now. Every calendar day that goes by, we continue that,” Sutton said. “So why not give something a shot that has the ability to work, that has the ability to spur development?”
“What would be the point of sitting around and waiting? We’ve got an opportunity to try to do something. The CURA plan is a different beast,” he added.
According to an analysis from the Planning Department, just 6% of the buildings in the area covered by the proposed overlay district are in good condition. Fifty percent are considered fair, 22% are labeled poor, 8% are considered a demolition candidate, and 11% are vacant lots. The remaining 3% of property is parking, schools and churches.
Another analysis from the city says that 24% of the lots in the area are vacant or parking lots. Vriendt said this “shows a tremendous underutilization of land,” which was a key driver behind the creation of the overlay.
Charleston City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday.