10/2/19 Historic district graphic

The Historic Preservation district spans the New Chauncey neighborhood.

Several city councilors said after a recent municipal forum that they think altering regulations surrounding West Lafayette’s historic district may negatively affect future development in the city.

West Lafayette city council candidates discussed ideas for adding more affordable housing near campus at a September municipal forum.

“We can’t even begin to talk about affordable housing without talking about some changes to the regulations around the Historic Preservation District,” said Sydney Rivera, a candidate running to represent District 1.

The Historic Preservation District was established in 2002 as a response to pressures to redevelop and convert historic homes into high-density rental properties. The area, commonly known as the New Chauncey neighborhood, extends east from Northwestern Avenue to North River Road. In the past, it has been a place of interest for companies wishing to develop on its desirably located western and southern borders, the latter being just north of Chauncey Village.

Rivera and fellow Republican candidate Jon Jones, who currently serves as District 3 councilor, joined forces at the forum to accuse the historic neighborhood of limiting the number of affordable housing options near Purdue University’s campus. The candidates critiqued the breadth of protections in the district, claiming specific policies limit the use of newer and safer building materials, which complicates any new construction efforts by adding unnecessary costs. The result, in their view, has been the proliferation of “dilapidated” student rental houses that pose a threat to the safety of residents.

As a solution, Rivera and Jones suggested the replacement of low-density student rental houses with higher density apartment complexes. The candidates said weakening certain restrictions on building materials and encouraging the development of high-density housing would alleviate both sustainability and affordability conflicts.

“Land is very expensive in the downtown area close to campus. The only land that’s left to really develop is in the Historic Preservation District that’s right on the edge of campus,” Jones said.

The discussion stems from the abundance of expensive apartment complexes that have been erected near State Street in the past several years, most prominently Rise on Chauncey, the Hub on Campus and Campus Edge on Pierce. City officials like Erik Carlson, the West Lafayette director of development, have begun to worry that options are becoming limited for renters seeking lower prices and the opportunity to walk to campus. He confirmed that the price of land surrounding the street has risen.

“The price of property along State Street is overvalued,” Carlson said. “The Rise is on about an acre’s worth of land and it sold for north of $4 million ... Because of that, the affordability of units has been hurt.”

Reporting from 6sqft, a news outlet providing information about New York City real estate, shows that this price is comparable to the average price per acre of land in New York City’s metropolitan area, which was $5.2 million in 2017. It exceeds the average value of land in and around San Francisco, which sits at $3.3 million per acre. Carlson mentioned a proposal from a local developer offering to buy an acre of land one parcel away from State Street for $8 million.

Democratic councilors Nick DeBoer and Peter Bunder, representing Districts 1 and 2, respectively, were vocal in their proposals of alternative solutions. The candidates argued that real estate south of State Street, part of DeBoer’s district, is better served for the construction of new apartment complexes.

Carlson confirmed this claim, stating that Tippecanoe County’s Area Plan Commission would soon be evaluating the area to gauge its potential for future development. He said it as an ideal space to add population density due to its composition being mostly multi-family housing units, whereas New Chauncey consists of primarily single-family units that would need to be converted.

DeBoer emphasized the need to focus new developments south of State Street to avoid the likelihood of negative political repercussions from New Chauncey residents. He explained that weakening protections on the Historic Preservation District will only serve to ruin the political consensus needed to build more rental units now and in the future.

“We needed to enact historic preservation so that residents could feel safe and know that their homes were not about to be bought by large corporations to create new housing developments,” DeBoer said. “There is no way that (State Street development) would have occurred had it not been for this truce.”

Bunder, also a New Chauncey homeowner who created the Historic Preservation Commission in 2011, emphasized the role of protections is not to limit the number of rentals but to ensure any development appropriately blends in with its surroundings.

“Historic preservation doesn’t say you can build something or not build something,” Bunder said. “It’s the Area Plan Commission that comes up with a land use plan.”

Written in the ordinance creating the HPC is its primary purpose “to ensure the harmonious and orderly growth and development of the city” while enhancing property values through aesthetic requirements that mandate a distinct style of architecture. These facts shows a misinterpretation of the objective of established protections by those hoping to weaken them, Bunder said.

Plans laid out by the Area Plan Commission in 2013 summarize the quality of houses in the region as being primarily in excellent or good condition and promoting student-focused redevelopment projects consistent with existing houses in the neighborhood. The document also makes explicit that the purpose of historic preservation is to ensure low-density houses comprise the majority of the neighborhood with medium-to-high density options limited to the outskirts.

The APC’s plans cater to the demands of residents like Brandon and Linda Payton, who have lived in the historic neighborhood for 10 years and observed the number of student renters increase. For the most part, the couple said, “they’re in check because they’re a part of our community.” The two mentioned their discomfort with the possibility of entire streets being dominated by renters.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of property that has become almost completely students, a street with all students. When there’s one homeowner, that’s a tough spot for the homeowner,” Brandon Payton said.

The homeowners detailed the value they place on historic protections after a meeting with the Historic Preservation Commission where they sought approval of potential building materials for an addition they’re planning. After saying that the process can be annoying, they acknowledged that it prevents downtrodden or ill-conceived additions from occurring. The general contractor building the addition for the Paytons, Mike Dunkle, said that the rules in place help prevent landlords from renovating with the cheapest possible materials.

“Landlords don’t really care, they want to see dollar signs. The cheapest, quickest, easiest repairs, that’s what they’ll do,” Dunkle said.

Carlson outlined specific examples of developers constructing new complexes in the neighborhood under the guidance of the HPC’s restrictions. One such company, Morris Rentals, was required to shift an initial proposal to build three houses and a three-story apartment complex to a revised plan that resulted in the conversion of an early 1900s duplex into a fourplex.

“They really did the blueprint on how development is possible in that district,” Carlson said. “It is more than possible to see that type of stuff be done.”

Jones did not respond to request for comment.

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