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How Could Changes To The UDO Impact Bloomington's Core Neighborhoods?

A photo of a plex house in the Elm Heights neighborhood.

This Elm Heights neighborhood could be a desired location for more plexes given its proximity to campus. (Joey Mendolia, WFIU/WTIU News)

The Bloomington City Council is in the middle of debating whether to allow multiplex housing in residential areas as part of new zoning changes to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).

For our City Limits project, we wanted to take a walk through the streets of some of Bloomington’s neighborhoods to see what kind of impact these changes could have.

READ MORE: Plan Commission Finishes UDO Hearings, Final Recommendation Passes On To City Council

Just south of Indiana University's campus is the Elm Heights neighborhood. It is one of Bloomington’s dozen or so residential areas that are commonly referred to as the core neighborhoods.  

"In a lot of ways, the neighborhoods are smarter than we are because they have this built-up embedded pattern," said local architect Jim Rosenbarger.

Rosenbarger has been a Bloomington resident for more than 30 years and he strongly opposes the new changes that could be coming in the UDO. 

A photo of Elm Heights resident Jim Rosenbarger.
Rosenbarger said the city moving forward with these UDO changes would be an experiment because the consequences are unknown. Note: Rosenbarger is related to current city councilmember, Kate Rosenbarger. (Courtesy: Joey Mendolia, WFIU/WTIU News)

One of the most controversial measures being considered is legalizing duplexes in most of the core neighborhoods, where they are currently not allowed.

READ MORE: Plan Commission Legalizes Duplexes In Bloomington's Core Neighborhoods

"When you institute something that's in policy for a neighborhood that is already sliding toward rental, homebuyers I think will just be turned off," said Rosenbarger. 

Rosenbarger and many others against the proposed zoning changes don’t want the neighborhoods exposed to more rental turnover, or to attract outside investors.  

"To have a neighborhood like Elm Heights overrun by students is not a good promotion of density in general. Some corporation could say 'I’m going to do plexes. I want 30 houses.' The way I understand it, once an investor starts to invest in that direction, they get to keep going," said Rosenbarger. 

This has been a constant concern throughout the UDO proposal process. People on both sides of the issue generally agree that Bloomington needs more housing. They also agree that a large chunk of that housing should be affordable, but they disagree on where that housing should go. 

"Our core is the old neighborhoods that really exemplify how our city grew, how we became a city, and so they're very precious," said former president of the Bryan Park Neighborhood Association, Jan Sorby.

Sorby she said believes the core neighborhoods should be protected under zoning code. 

"I think it’ll make it infinitely easier to create more rentals when we really need workforce housing and affordable housing," said Sorby. 

Sorby said plexes could very well be the correct approach in creating a more affordable housing market for Bloomington, but she said placing them in existing residential areas is her main objection.

"They [plexes] are not intended to be scattered everywhere. They're intended to be a bridge between single family and a higher taller building," said Sorby. 

Both Sorby and Rosenbarger contend that a village center development, similar to the one surrounding the E. Hillside Drive and Henderson Street intersection, is a better model.

A photo at the East Hillside Drive and Henderson Street intersection.
The village center at the E. Hillside Drive/Henderson Street intersection contains a mix of multiplex housing, apartments and commerical space. (Courtesy: Joey Mendolia, WFIU/WTIU News)

"And it makes sense, people who want to live in a higher density area, they're happy to do it for the tradeoff of having a coffee shop next door," said Sorby.

Although the city does favor densifying areas with village centers in its Comprehensive Plan, the potential UDO changes extend well beyond that.  

In 2019, the same proposal was on the table to approve plexes in the core neighborhoods, but it was rejected after strong community opposition.  

"Citizens really rejected this idea. It’s been said, elections have consequences, and the city council makeup has changed. And that may be true, but citizens of the city have not changed that much," said Sorby. 

From that rejection to this newly packaged consideration to add plexes again, the city council has undergone an election cycle. 

Councilmember Matt Flaherty was elected to the council in 2019, along with councilmember Kate Rosenbarger. Both members support the use of by-right plexes as a means of creating more affordable options throughout Bloomington. 

Another photo of a plex house in Elm Heights.
According to the city's Planning and Transportation Department, there are over 700 plexes spread throughout Bloomington. But many residents fear these new measures will cause that number to grow. (Courtesy: Joey Mendolia, WFIU/WTIU News)

There are several more public officials and community members who support this change in local zoning.  

"If the number of people who want to live in a neighborhood increases by a certain amount, allowable density should increase by that amount," said local resident Deborah Myerson. 

These new changes were also supported by a majority of the Plan Commission during its deliberations this spring.

Plan commissioner Karin St. John was the swing vote in late March when the commission added an amendment to make duplexes by-right instead of conditional in the neighborhoods.

READ MORE: Plan Commission Moves Ahead With Proposal Making It Easier For Duplexes To Get Approval 

"The UDO is living and breathing and we can change this, but if we’re going to do it, let’s give it our all and see if it works," said St. John.

But the notion that the city can go back and reverse these changes doesn't resonate with everyone. 

"We don't know which of these ideas will influence change, and if change happens, what does that change look like? There are no parameters to understand what causes success or failure," said Sorby. 

No final decisions have been made on these proposed UDO changes. The city council still has time to make any last-minute adjustments to the zoning proposal before it will cast its final vote on the measure in the coming weeks.

Have a question? Ask City Limits:

Our community is changing, from closing businesses to traffic and road construction to affordable housing, and we see the impact of these changes all around us.

We want to know: What questions do you have about how the Bloomington of tomorrow will impact your work, your personal life, your community and your future?

Here’s how it works: You submit a question you’d like us to explore about how Bloomington has changed over the past few decades, what you want to see for the city in the future and how ties with IU continue to shape the community.  

So: What do you wonder about how Bloomington is changing and how it impacts your life?

Interested in an ongoing conversation how Bloomington is changing? Join our Facebook group!

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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