City leaders give student housing plan mixed reviews
BY JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONSjsimmons@tylerpaper.com
A proposal to add student housing to the area near The University of Texas at Tyler received mixed reviews Wednesday from Tyler city leaders, who raised concerns about crime and a surplus of lodging.
Texas Bank and Trust of East Texas ultimately won approval of a final site plan amendment for the project, submitted on behalf of the potential purchaser, Texas Student Housing.
If all goes as planned, developers hope to transform a 7.36 parcel east of the McDonald Road and Westminster Drive intersection into an upscale, gated housing community that caters to students.
The Tyler City Council signed off on the plan, but certain other steps must be taken before construction can begin, City Planner Heather Nick said.
"Part of the property is located inside the city limits and part of it is out," she said. "You want to make sure everything is unified for emergency responses. We asked the applicant to sign an agreement to annex."
The housing firm originally wanted permission to construct buildings up to 15 stories tall and incorporate an on-site restaurant into an area largely dominated by single and multi-family homes, records show.
Texas Student Housing's site plan also earmarked space for an outdoor venue, student lounge, indoor theater and conference room into the project, records show.
Officials worked with the firm to tweak certain aspects of the plan to comply with local zoning codes, records show.
"The buildings can be (a maximum of) five stories," Ms. Nick said, noting the eatery is out as well. "There's not enough parking."
The new site plan calls for the construction of six, five-story apartment buildings with two clubhouses, constructed in three phases.
Councilman Mark Whatley was the first to raise concerns.
"They (Texas Student Housing) call it student housing, but we've recently had issues with that," he said. "What's different about your product?"
The councilman's remarks reference a string of shootings, robberies and assaults reported in recent months primarily at Cambridge and Varsity Place apartments, adjacent to the university, records show. Tyler police are attempting to work with the management of those complexes to quell the activities.
Tom Washington, speaking on behalf of Texas Student Housing, highlighted some of the potential positives associated with this latest project, describing it as "high end."
"People are bringing their kids, sometimes from quite a distance away," he said. "Every parent deserves to keep their child safe in student housing. At other complexes here in Tyler, there have been issues with that (crime)."
Washington said this new complex is to be gated and offer on-site security.
"It really goes back to the way they are managed," Washington said. "We will not have a tolerance for troublemakers"
Whatley pressed for more information.
"For the last month or so, it (crime) has been a chronic issue," he said. "This will be a different product in the market?"
Very different Washington said, adding, "This is high-end student housing -- I don't think this product exists in Tyler. We will have quite an investment in these assets. ... The kind of activities that go on in a couple of other complexes really do nothing but pull investment dollars down."
Councilman Sam Mezayek said he didn't see the wisdom in adding even more student housing to an area already flooded with choices.
He described the scenario as a "supply versus demand" issue, with too many apartments and too few renters.
"I feel like new units have been built so quickly that we have a surplus of apartments and they need warm bodies just to fill them," Mezayek said. "They (apartments) are letting anyone with a heartbeat move in to get a couple of months rent."
Washington said university dorms are full, so students are forced to find housing elsewhere.
He believes a safe, upscale choice will draw students closer to school and "give it a leg up."
The Planning and Zoning Commission raised concerns about building height, parking and traffic earlier this month, but the panel ultimately recommended it for approval, records show.