Recommendations 

In November, the task force reported its findings and recommendations to city council. City council, along with the planning commission, adopted all of the panel’s suggestions.


The first and biggest recommendation suggested that large housing projects with 200 or more bedrooms be confined to a geographical “box.” The committee originally intended that the box would span a mile from the university in all directions, from McFarland Boulevard to Queen City Avenue and 15th Street to the Black Warrior River, AL.com reported.


Land already zoned for multi-family housing would not be affected by this recommendation, but the order would freeze any new rezoning requests for multi-family housing.


Reynolds contended that a substantial amount of mega-complexes came into being as a result of property rezoning. If such properties had not been rezoned to permit multi-family unit housing, then the complexes would not have been built, he said.


Due to increasing oversaturation of the housing market, Councilman Matthew Calderone pushed for an expansion of this policy and stated that the ban should include all of Tuscaloosa, not just the box.


The task force originally intended to promote more development within the box to encourage a pedestrian-friendly, walkable downtown area near the university.


“You want an equal policy that’s going to affect the city in an equal manner,” Calderone said. “At the end of the day, if the housing market is oversaturated, it’s oversaturated. We don't need any developments with 200 bedrooms or more. We don’t need to make an exception with any of Tuscaloosa when it comes to rezoning property for 200 bedrooms or more.”


City council accepted Calderone's proposal for a city-wide ban, a move that Maddox said is appropriate for the time-being.




























“If the university continues to grow, units are absorbed, then it might be in the future that we look at establishing the box itself and having less restrictive guidelines,” Maddox stated.


The availability of parking is also problematic, as the city previously approved several large complexes currently under construction that will provide a shortage of parking for their residents. The task force proposed that future housing developments provide at least one parking spot per housing unit.


Though city council adopted the recommendation, complexes that were approved prior to this charge may still pose parking issues once construction is complete.


The task force cited the construction of The Grove at Tuscaloosa housing complex, which was approved for 525 parking spaces and 628 bedrooms, The Tuscaloosa News reported.


“Parking is always going to be a problem,” Odom said. While residents are aware of other housing problems, he said that parking is the hottest issue.


Calderone agreed that parking was a point of popular debate within the community and said that the task force’s proposal for parking should be carefully considered. This measure differs in validity, depending on the area, he added.


“I believe there’s certain areas in Tuscaloosa [where this suggestion] makes sense,” Calderone said. “You may need a parking spot per bedroom or per unit, but I think if you look into our downtown you have to really be creative with parking solutions. There may be certain areas where you don’t want a car per bedroom or even a car per unit.”


He said that downtown parking and parking near the Strip in particular require extensive consideration.


“I’m sure it sounds great to have one parking spot per bedroom in every single development, but at the end of the day, you have to consider the fact that if you do that and you have, say 2,000 beds downtown, that’s 2,000 cars you’re putting downtown,” Calderone said.


If your overall goal is to create a walkable community where people can commute from campus to downtown  Tuscaloosa, to the Strip area and closer to 15th Street, then you don't necessarily want to encourage everyone to bring their cars and provide them with a spot, you want to encourage them to walk."                                                                                               

He said the task force’s recommendation for parking would also invite an increase in traffic downtown, which the city staff is attempting to avoid.


“I think there’s [much] to think about with parking, and you have to take it by area of town. People argue that we have a parking problem downtown, but I would argue that we have a walking problem downtown. I think if you require every development to have a parking spot per bedroom, you’re encouraging people to bring their vehicles. You’re encouraging them to park downtown, and that’s the exact opposite of what most people want to see - a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly community.”


Encouraging people to bring their cars and park them downtown, is like shooting yourself in the foot, Calderone added.


“There do need to be some parking measures, and we need to think creatively about that, but we need to be really cautious before we require a parking spot per bedroom in downtown area.”






















Another recommendation advised the Planning & Zoning Commission and city council to immediately begin updating Tuscaloosa’s comprehensive development plan. The committee proposed that the city’s comprehensive plan be revised in conjunction with the University of Alabama’s development strategy, the Master Plan.


The university revises the Master Plan every five years in November. This year the college will again edit the Plan, but in cooperation with the city’s development strategy, The Tuscaloosa News reported.


Officials agreed that the student population affects both the city of Tuscaloosa and the college and that the city’s comprehensive plan and the university’s Master Plan should correspond.


“I don't think most people on the task force would say that the ban was intended to be a fix-all solution,” Vaughn said. “However, it is a temporary Band-Aid until the city adopts a new comprehensive plan.”


The task force also urged the city to explore the possibility of impact fees and reevaluate building permit fees.


Impact fees, also known as access fees, are for developers and basically help offset the stress housing construction causes to the city from an infrastructure standpoint and from a city water standpoint, 

Calderone said.


Compared to other cities within the state, Tuscaloosa maintains extremely low building permit fees, said City Planner John McConnell. Huntsville, for instance, charges almost twice as much as Tuscaloosa. The city should recuperate funds from developers who impact the area’s infrastructure, so that the burden will not lie on taxpayers, McConnell said.


























“I’m looking forward to it, because there are areas where the taxes being generated are not enough to support the infrastructure,” Maddox said. “I don’t believe it’s good business to overtax anyone, and taxing just because you have the authority to do it is wrong. I’ve put together an internal committee that’s looking at impact fees and looking at different structures throughout the nation.”


Many of the task force’s suggestions simply advocate investigation, Calderone said. “A lot of the recommendations just call [for] us to look into things. We will continue to look into those different policy matters, and we’ll see what we think works.”


City council will continue to adjust the task force’s suggestions as time progresses, Calderone said. “I think they’ll be changed as the housing market evolves. Nothing in the recommendations says that that is the way it’s going to be for all eternity.”


He said the council will continue to execute different preventive and proactive measures to help control the housing market but that Tuscaloosa's ability to interest companies looking to build is also a good problem.


“We’re the fifth biggest city in the state, and we have a lot of amenities in Tuscaloosa,” Calderone said. “We have an attractive university and a thriving downtown. People want to live here.”


However, the city’s implementation of these recommendations sends a message to these companies, informing them that the council takes the problem of market oversaturation seriously, Calderone said.


“This cautions developers who are thinking about beginning engineering work,” he said. “A lot of money is invested before the product even comes before the council - thousands of dollars.”


The council's adoption of the task force's suggestions will go far in addressing the proliferation of off-campus housing, but he can't see into the future, Calderone said.


“It’s really going to help a potential problem that could arise in 2015 with further saturation of the market, and I do feel good about the direction we’re heading,” he said. “We want to make sure that if we are dropping in occupancy ratings because of the oversaturation of the market, that we’re dropping as little as possible.”


Andrews said that most Tuscaloosa apartments currently maintain healthy occupancy rates, but that the continued development of mega-complexes could bring these rates down.


“I think we’ve taken proactive measures to make sure that it doesn’t become a truly significant problem,” Calderone said. “I do believe, however, that if we do keep up with the amount of increase in student housing and development at the pace we were going that it could become a significant problem.”


Task force members also discussed the possibility of crime increasing when apartments are no longer brand new. The housing committee expressed a desire for increased security measures for future developments, including guards and security cameras. However, it is unclear whether or not housing that was approved before this decision may still cause a spike in crime.


The committee accomplished its goals, Vaughn said. Maddox intended for the panel to come to a consensus on recommendations for the city, and its research-oriented recommendations was helpful to city council, Vaughn said. The committee was also united in its agreement to pose these suggestions to the mayor.


According to the Tuscaloosa News, Planning and Zoning Commission Vice Chairman Steven Rumsey said that the recommendations will go far in protecting the city from similar developments in the future, but only if they are rigorously followed.

 
Legislation 

Property zones are generally characterized by the types of developments that can be built within them, different occupancy requirements for said developments, building features (such as height or amount of lot space) and more. Mixed use zones, for instance, allow a variety of developments, including housing and commercial properties. The task force sought to reform property zones in Tuscaloosa in order to stem the onslaught of off-campus student housing construction.


City council began the first steps in codifying recommendations from the Student Rental Housing Task Force in January. The council’s Public Projects Committee voted to accept the wording of three amendments that will reflect the task force’s suggestions for managing the substantial growth of off-campus student complexes. In accordance with state law, the amendments were published for 30 days before the council planned to vote to adopt them into the municipal code. The proposed amendments pertained to       property zones and ordinances in the Tuscaloosa area.


                        According to a Tuscaloosa News report, the new codes seek to:

1. Ban apartment buildings within “MX,” or mixed use, development zones

2. Forbid more than three unrelated people from sharing a single living space within MX-5 property zones. Currently, the ordinance allows up to four people.

3. Prohibit developers from using provisions in Tuscaloosa’s landscape ordinance to reduce off-street parking requirements for any residential construction


Developments within the city’s construction permitting pipeline can be exempt from these codes if they either acquired a building permit before March 5 or have four people residing in the same living space in an MX-5 zone before Sept. 1, 2015, the report added. Jimbo Woodson, senior associate city attorney, said that developments can operate in violation of these codes under a non-conforming status, as long as these deadlines are met.


After the mandatory 30-day period, city council adopted the three rezoning amendments (listed above) in a unanimous vote in February. The decision implemented three of the task force’s nine recommendations.


Also in February, city council approved two additional recommendations from the task force. The changes removed the city’s R4-S zoning provision. The R4-S zone previously allowed up to four, sometimes five, unrelated people to live together. According to the task force’s research, flexible R4-S zone regulations promoted the growth of large-scale student housing developments in Tuscaloosa, which ultimately called for its removal.


The council also voted to rezone about 230 acres of existing R4-S property to R-4, the Tuscaloosa News reported. The R-4 zone is more restrictive and allows no more than three unrelated people to live together. According to McConnell, 80 of these acres are undeveloped, and student apartments and housing developments will not be allowed to build in these sites.


These changes in local property zoning requirements and classifications adhere to the task force’s suggestions to city council for limiting the growth of off-campus student housing.


 
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Oversupply: Unraveling the student housing myth
The University of Alabama - 2014