Jake Schneider's plan to convert the former Community Music School building into the 22-unit Musical Suites apartment project won city Planning Board approval Monday night, after demonstrating that he had done everything possible to work with neighbors whose century-old carriage house is close to the property line on their parcel.
Schneider plans to convert the existing three-story historic building at 415 Elmwood Ave. into 12 apartments, while constructing a nearly identical structure on the school's adjacent parking lot. The school is relocating.
The new sister building will feature 10 apartments on the upper two floors, above 18 covered parking spaces. The two buildings would be linked by a glass walkway, uniting them as one structure with 22 apartments, using a shared set of elevators and entrance.
Critics – including Planning Board members and the National Park Service – had objected last month to Schneider's plans to use a decorative gray architectural metal paneling around the sides and rear. So the developer switched back to cement board siding that is "certainly more consistent with the historic fabric of the neighborhood," Schneider acknowledged.
The revised plans also reduced the width of the driveway, and Schneider met with the city arborist to address questions about removal of trees on the property.
But the biggest hurdle was the adjacent carriage house, owned by Joanna Angie and Kerry Mitchell. The rear house at 403 Elmwood sits a mere 8 inches from the edge of their property, and Schneider's new building would be just 3 feet farther away.
"The issue is size," Angie said. "It's about space and breathing room, and I don't have it."
Yet that's allowed by the Green Code, which didn't envision an existing property so close on the other side.
"We're fully compliant," he said. "When I, as a developer, study an opportunity like this, my mandate to my design team is that this needs to be compliant with the code. We don’t want to have to ask for variances ... And as a developer, I feel I have rights as well, to deliver a project that complies with the code."
Even so, the developer met with the two women to try to address their issues. He agreed to coordinate tree removals, allow them to replace a fence between their house and the parking lot, add bollards in front of their property where it abuts Schneider's parking lot to prevent cars from damaging their house, and even offered to let them help select the material colors for the side of his new building.
"I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out how to give them more relief. We gave them everything we could," he said.
That still doesn't address their primary complaint, though.
"I understand Joanna’s concern and Kerry's concern. It is their home. It is 8 inches from the property line. We will be 3 feet 8 inches from their home," Schneider acknowledged. "I don’t deny that when they get out, they will see this building that hasn’t been there to this point."
But there's not much else he could do, he said.
"It's unfortunate that our immediate neighbors aren't going to be thrilled with every aspect of this, but quite frankly, I didn't know that was a dwelling when we bought the building," Schneider said, referring to his purchase of the music school. "I’m between a rock and a hard place. I’m sympathetic to our neighbors’ concerns, but at the same time we have rights as developers and property owners to work within the laws."
Even the women admitted they had no complaints about Schneider.
"Jake is great to work with," Angie said. "And I know it looks like a garage, but it’s a carriage house, and it’s ours, and we feel very passionately about it."
Common Council Member David Rivera said he also met with both Schneider and the neighbors, but to no avail. "I tried mollifying and mitigating as much as we could, and it was very difficult in this situation," he said. "I honestly believe they tried their best to work this out, and there just wasn’t a solution."
Planning Board members agreed. "Everything this development is doing is within the code," said Planning Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "The problem is that the carriage house is eight inches off the property line. The problem is not so much what is being built but what was built. What we’re dealing with is an as-of-right development butting up to a century old property that was built on the property line."
"There are certain things that we’re just not going to be able to change," Board Member Martha Lamparelli added.