December 4, 2012

New housing project scuttled

Planning commission buckles under pressure from residents

December 4, 2012 By D.E. Smoot Phoenix Staff Writer

— Opposition from about two dozen west-side Muskogee residents scuttled a developer’s plan to invest $5.5 million in an affordable housing project.

Much of the public backlash centered on concerns about the target market, which would include income-qualified occupants. Residents also cited concerns about the potential for falling property values, escalating crime rates and increased traffic volume.

A representative of the development group and city officials who supported the plan said those concerns are unfounded. The proposed 48-unit apartment complex that would have been on the southwest corner of the intersection at West Okmulgee Avenue and South 48th Street would have served “moderate-income families.” And, the developer said his track record shows its projects have boosted property values and earned support among its neighbors.

Planning commissioners, however, buckled under the pressure of the project’s opponents and denied a request to revise the city’s land use map. Without the revision, commissioners could not move forward with a request to rezone the property to allow the construction of multi-family dwellings.

Planning Commission Chairman Shawn Raper, who abstained from the vote because of a conflict of interest, described the decision as “very disappointing.” Public opposition and the panel’s decision, Raper said, are emblematic of the city’s stagnant growth.

“We talk about a desire to see our city grow, the need for good, quality housing, and improving our housing stock in Muskogee,” said Raper, a real estate broker and former city councilor. “But, when we have the opportunity to facilitate that, we turn away and say, ‘Not in my backyard.’ That’s the way it was during the meeting.”

Raper said Overland Property Group, with headquarters in Topeka, Kan., is a “high-quality and very professional” development company that specializes in affordable housing. The company owns and manages properties in Kansas, Missouri and Texas.

Matt Gillam, Overland’s development coordinator, said the Muskogee development project has been in the works for about a year. The company chose Muskogee because of its inadequate housing stock compared with the potential for growth.

“When we look for projects and locations, we take a large swath of the state and do a lot of market research to see where the best opportunities are,” Gillam said. “We came across Muskogee and liked the demographics of the town, thought the housing stock in town was underutilized and underserved, and proceeded down that path and came up with a development plan.”

The development project, which may be pursued at an alternate location, would feature a fitness facility, community room, a library with computers, and a clubhouse with free wireless Internet connections. It was designed to include two- and three-bedroom units, a playground area and basketball court.

“When we decide to pursue a project, we like to come into town and blow the competition away,” Gillam said. “We pride ourselves on our award-winning developments and the quality of the project.”

Planning Director Gary Garvin said he recommended approval of the land use map revisions and rezoning requests, believing the project “would have been good asset for the city.” Garvin said he believes opponents lacked an understanding of what is known as Section 42 housing.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 provides tax credits to private developers who agree to cap rental rates for income-qualified occupants. Developers must agree to set aside a certain percentage of its units for occupants whose incomes fall below established levels. Unlike Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, Section 42 developments is not a rent subsidy program.

“They had all the information,” Garvin said about the residents who opposed the proposed development. “Their concerns just didn’t allow them to hear what was being said.”

Efforts to contact those who opposed the requested revisions to the land use map and rezoning ordinance necessary to move the development forward were unsuccessful.

Gillam said in light of this week’s developments, Overland withdrew its request for a resolution in support of its application for Section 42 tax credits. The company, however, may consider other options in Muskogee for the future.

“We still feel there is an extreme need for quality, affordable housing in Muskogee,” Gillam said. “We really did feel like it was the right site, but we don’t have an immediate plan of moving forward.”

Raper, whose father is Overland’s acting agent, said the company may be considering a second site for development. Raper said that site is outside city limits but declined to give additional details.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot

@muskogeephoenix.com.

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