Doctor wants to build apartments near medical district

Neighbors oppose rezoning request, citing concerns about traffic, noise, crime

People who live near a proposed three-story, 18-unit apartment complex on Springfield's north side say the $4 million project would increase traffic hazards and otherwise detract from the feel of the residential neighborhood.

"It's just going to be more congested," John Austin, 74, one of the neighbors, told Illinois Times. "The traffic's going to be nuts."

But regional land-use officials said the proposed change in the current office and commercial zoning to a form of residential zoning would be an "acceptable variation" for the vacant land that would be developed in the 900 block of North Walnut Street.

click to enlarge Doctor wants to build apartments near medical district
COURTESY MARTIN ENGINEERING
A schematic drawing for a proposed 18-unit market-rate apartment complex on the west side of the 900 block of North Walnut Street in Springfield.

"Negative impacts are not anticipated," the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission wrote in its findings when it voted 7-2 on April 17 to recommend that the Springfield City Council approve the proposed zoning change and variance.

"The proposed use will not cause any more traffic congestion or changes to the character of the area than a much more intense commercial use would in the existing zoning," the commission also said in its written findings.

Springfield's traffic engineer determined that the proposed zoning change "generally appears to provide uses with a lesser traffic demand, and therefore adverse traffic demands wouldn't be anticipated as a result of the use change," according to minutes of the commission's April 17 meeting.

Neighbors, however, said the apartment complex would result in an increase in traffic compared with the status quo – a currently vacant, grassy lot with several large trees immediately south of a one-story Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services office building. The complex would cover the addresses of 913, 917, 919, 921 and 923 N. Walnut.

After a request from Ward 5 Ald. Lakeisha Purchase, the City Council on May 21 tabled a final vote on the zoning proposal. The council now is scheduled to consider the proposal again June 18.

Dr. Muhammad Ali Naveed, a physician who moved to Springfield from New York state about a year ago, recently purchased the property to develop the complex for market-rate apartments.

He said the project would be an asset to the neighborhood and would provide needed high-quality housing, especially for medical students, medical residents, nurses and others working in the nearby Mid-Illinois Medical District.

Medical district officials have said convenient, decent housing is a major need as employment by Springfield Memorial Hospital, HSHS St. John's Hospital, Springfield Clinic, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and other medical providers keeps growing.

Monthly rents for Naveed's one- and two-bedroom units would range from $1,400 to $1,600, he said. On-site parking would be offered at ground level on the property at the southwest corner of North Walnut and West Calhoun Avenue, according to plans Naveed filed with the city.

Most neighbors who attended an informal meeting on the project June 7 with Naveed and Purchase at Cook's Spice Rack & Chili said they oppose the project even though continuing with status-quo zoning would allow for the construction of larger commercial projects, as much as 50 feet tall – 10 feet taller than what is proposed – with no say by the public.

click to enlarge Doctor wants to build apartments near medical district
PHOTO BY DEAN OLSEN.
Neighbors opposing a proposed 18-unit market-rate apartment complex on the west side of the 900 block of North Walnut Street in Springfield include (from left) Kelly Thornton, Charles Spencer, Sherry Young, John Austin and Julie and Jim Johnson. They are standing at the proposed site, with two-lane Walnut Street on the left.

Austin said neighbors are concerned that the three-story building wouldn't "fit in with the neighborhood."

In addition to the zoning change, Naveed is asking for the variance to allow a minimum required lot area per dwelling unit to be 2,050 square feet instead of the required 2,500 square feet in the new residential zoning category.

Without the variance, only 14 units could be built. Naveed said his business plan is based on 18 units.

Naveed also is requesting a conditional use permit to allow for a maximum building height of 40 feet, rather than the current maximum of 35 feet in the new residential zoning.

Several neighbors asked Naveed why he didn't look for another site for the project that was in or near the medical district but not in their neighborhood.

Naveed responded that there either weren't enough adjacent parcels available for purchase to secure enough land for the project, or the parcels were too expensive. He noted that he won't receive any economic incentives from the city to build the complex. Naveed added that downtown buildings often are too expensive to renovate for market-rate apartments.

Purchase said she hasn't decided how she will vote on the proposed project. The council's other ward representatives often side with the alderperson in whose ward the project would be located.

Neighbors told Naveed that they worried he would build the complex and then decide later to rent to low-income tenants whose rent would be paid through the federal Section 8 program. He said he had no interest in using the Section 8 program.

Despite Naveed's answers, most neighbors at the informal meeting continued to oppose the project.

"I don't think it would improve our neighborhood," said Julie Johnson, 59, a retired state worker who lives in the 900 block of North Osburn Avenue.

Robert Lewis, 53, who lives in the 500 block of West Elliott Avenue and works at the Illinois Army National Guard's Camp Lincoln, said, "I think it's going to bring way too much traffic and, depending on who they rent to, more crime."

Charles Spencer, 73, a retired registered nurse who lives in the 1000 block of North Walnut, said, "It just does not fit in the neighborhood."

Naveed received zoning approval from the City Council on April 16 for a different apartment complex project, this one to include a total of 36 units and consisting of three three-story buildings near Bruns Lane and Hill Meadows Drive.

The project, estimated to cost $5 million to $6 million, will be constructed after the North Walnut apartments are completed, Naveed said.

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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