Plan commission gives first approval to Rubicon project

Photo provided An artist’s rendition of the proposed Rubicon Investment Group, which is planning to develop a five-story, 120-unit apartment building with a parking garage and commercial area, requiring the demolition of the former Joe Willy’s restaurant, a drive-thru bank and a house with historical ties to the city.

The Columbus Plan Commission voted to approve a site development plan for a proposed mixed-use development that would be located at 921 Jackson St. and 1008 and 1020 Washington streets in one of Columbus’ more high-profile areas situated at a gateway into downtown.

The matter has sparked opposition from some in the public as city officials try to balance a need for more high-density development with concerns about the changing nature of downtown, while also trying to preserve the city’s architectural identity.

Commission members voted 8-2 to approve the general layout for what would be a five-story, 120-unit apartment building with a parking garage and commercial area which would require the demolition of a drive-thru bank and a house with historical ties to the city.

Commissioners Laura Garrett and Dennis Baute voted against the proposal.

The applicant, Rubicon Investment Group, had its request for site development plan approval continued on May 8 to give them more time to address concerns related to parking and the overall massing, scale and height of the building, along with more than 20 comments from planning staff that relate to various compliance-related documentation that Rubicon didn’t submit or was lacking detail.

The most notable changes made since the last meeting include slightly lowering the height of the building so it would be 61-feet at its highest point, removing a garage access point on Washington St. and increasing the number of parking spaces available on site from 1.15 spaces per unit to 1.28 spaces per unit.

The ground floor of the building was also moved west on Jackson Street, closer to the right-of-way line. Because of this, a small commercial/office component was added to the proposed development on the northwest corner of Jackson Street.

Although the proposed development is located in the Commercial: Downtown (CD) zoning district, which allows buildings up to 125 feet, height has been a point of contention because of how the development would dwarf some of the surrounding buildings, particularly those located in the Columbus Historic District neighborhood nearby.

Members from the public neighboring the proposed development have been steadfastly against the project for a variety of reasons, ranging from the look of the building, concerns about increased traffic in the area that could occur, lack of parking, even the potential price-point of the building as the city is in the midst of completing its first housing study in more than a decade.

Rubicon’s Matt Nolley said the price for a 600 square-foot studio apartment in the development would start at “plus or minus $1,300 a month.”

After recent changes, the proposed development would have 144 parking spaces inside the garage and 10 spots in an alley to the south for a total of 154 spots for tenants, or 1.28 spaces per unit, according to a planning staff report.

Some on the commission and from the public have pointed out that those spots don’t account for employees working at the mixed-use development or those perusing the commercial spaces, putting more strain on public parking.

Commissioner Evan Kleinhenz asked City Engineer Andrew Beckort if he thought Jackson Street could handle the additional traffic and Beckort said it could.

“Of note, we’re undertaking a study of 11th and Washington, all the way west to the roundabout, just to look at that whole corridor and from a traffic standpoint, especially those two intersections — but Jackson Street could handle this traffic,” Beckort said.

Residents of Jackson Place Condominiums submitted a letter expressing their opposition to the project, and a representative of the group said removing the garage access point and placing all the traffic on Jackson Street only exacerbates their concerns.

Indianapolis attorney Clay Miller was there on behalf of community members Mike Mullet and Patty March. He said his clients had paid for a recently completed analysis for the restoration of 1034 Washington St., also known as the Overstreet Home and currently owned by the Columbus Capital Foundation. Miller noted a section of the zoning ordinance that essentially says that existing historic features “should be preserved through harmonious and careful design,” especially those listed as outstanding, notable, or contributing in places like the Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory, Bartholomew County Interim Report or in the Indiana Register of Historic Sites and Structures.

Even though not explicitly a part of this request, Rubicon has submitted a site development plan for the Overstreet Home, or former Joe Willy’s, that has yet to be heard by the plan commission.

Renderings of a potential two-story mixed-use restaurant and office to be located there have consistently been included in materials submitted by Rubicon and presented to the commission.

Miller said that part of the zoning ordinance referring to historic features applies in the area — Tricia Gilson with the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives previously told The Republic that both 1034 and 1008 Washington St. were listed as “outstanding” examples of the Queen Anne residential style in the 1980 Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory for Bartholomew County.

“That can become a real gem for the north-end of this site and it would be harmed if you put this five-story mass right up towards the property line that’s shared with the Overstreet House,” Miller told the commission.

City/county planning director Jeff Bergman said in response that because the ordinance’s language includes “should” rather than “shall” it is more so guidance instead of a requirement.

Community member Jamie Acton wondered how plans for the site mesh with the more intentional steps the city is undertaking for sites like the former Sears building, where public input gathered through the Downtown Columbus 2030 plan will be used to decide its ultimate use.

“What’s the point of doing the housing study? What is the point of doing an Envision Columbus and strategic plan if we’re going to approve the largest (apartment complex) in the city?”

Councilman Tom Dell, D-at-large, chimed in virtually to ask that the project be moved forward and said adding any type of housing is important.

“The argument that it only has to be a certain type of price-point housing doesn’t necessarily make any sense because that’s the most expensive real estate in Columbus and so it’s going to carry a higher price tag.”

Bergman went over the recommendation from staff, which was approval given that certain technical conditions are met. He said the proposed development would meet several considerations specified in the comprehensive plan, like those that encourage infill development, attracting people downtown and preventing urban sprawl.

However, whether it meets other comprehensive plan considerations is more up for debate. Like those that say a development should be in scale with its surroundings, that the proposed development would not be detrimental or endanger public health and safety, or that the proposed development wouldn’t be “injurious to the use and enjoyment of surrounding property.”

Bergman said staff found Rubicon had addressed the scaling portion because the design of the first floor replicates the proportions of adjacent buildings. After being reviewed by planning staff and consultation with the city engineer’s office and Columbus Fire Department, Bergman said there were no concerns or objections regarding the traffic situation, noting that improvements to 11th and Washington would be a part of the project.

With regard to the consideration that says the proposed development shouldn’t be “injurious to the use and enjoyment of surrounding property,” Bergman said “the project will not be visible from the vast majority of the district,” referring to the nearby Columbus Historic District, and that the nearest property that would potentially be impacted is Jackson Place, where “those neighbors may face more competition for on-street public parking spaces and may experience some additional traffic.”

Members from the public also voiced frustration that the blueprints included in a Dropbox folder before the meeting were not the same as those that Rubicon presented to the commission during meeting.

Bergman said that after an applicant’s initial application, planning staff provide comments and applicants are given the opportunity to revise and submit their application again. Materials included in the Dropbox are based on what was submitted at the revised deadline and there’s nothing that precludes an applicant from bringing new materials to the meeting.

“It really is then a matter of how comfortable plan commission members are with that changed material and your ability to get up to speed on that, based on what’s presented at the meeting, ” Bergman said. ” … We advise applicants it’s kind of at your own risk if you want to bring material that’s after that revised deadline.”