Apartments South by South Main

Brent Finnegan -- May 18th, 2010

Last week, the Harrisonburg Planning Commission approved updated plans to build 466 “student housing” apartments in the southern part of town, between Main Street and Interstate-81. Previous plans for the site, which included 322 condos and 144 apartments, have already been approved by City Council. But the new developer, identified in today’s DNR as Richard Robert Babcock, wants 466 one, two and four bedroom apartments instead.

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In 2006, before the development was being called “student housing” in the news, the DNR reported that developer Bill Neff had planned “to break ground on Southbury Station — a development to include 466 homes on 60 acres at Boxwood Court and South Main Street.” In 2009, Southbury was mentioned again in a story about several new student housing developments that had been rezoned R5 (mixed use).

According to Doug Manners’ report in today’s Daily News-Record, “the city’s planning staff has consistently recommended that a residential development not be built on the 60-plus-acre property, citing transportation and land-use concerns in the industrial and business area,” but now they’ve warmed up to the idea. Sort of.

On WHSV, city planner Adam Fletcher called the developer’s proposed changes (to the already approved plan) “the lesser of two evils.”

“Even though we’ve always looked at it as a negative thing for the city, it’s kind of the lesser of two evils. Do we go with the approved plan or, do we go with the proposed plan? Which as we see it is better for the city,” says Fletcher.

City Council is expected to vote on the proposed changes June 8.

UPDATE: Robert Babcock, the developer, says that Bill Neff is “not associated with the actual project development.” Babcock writes:

Once completed we estimate approximately 1,500 residents or beds, not 1,800 as specified in the DNR article. Our construction timeline has not been finalized. I can say, the initial phase most likely will not be completed until fall enrollment occupancy 2012. The DNR article states 144 units by fall 2011 . . .

Babcock adds that the updated plans include bike lanes (within the property) and “substantially more open space” than comparably-zoned developments.

So it sounds like the availability of space within the city limits may be the main attraction for developers here. According to the 2006 DNR article:

The price of land on the south side of Harrisonburg is considerably lower than property in the Valley Mall area of the city, said Bill Neff, president of Neff Enterprises.

“There’s practically none available along the [U.S. 33] corridor,” Neff said. “But if you could find it, the price would be close to double what the land along South Main Street sells for.”

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35 Responses to “Apartments South by South Main”

  1. Benjamin says:

    I’m slightly confused as to why we need more apartments in this town when 1/2 the existing off-campus student housing is vacant, especially when it is inconveniently far from anything but car dealerships and a bowling alley. Just wondering.

    • blondiesez says:

      I agree. And can you imagine the gridlock?

      If you assume that about 900 students will live there (488 units, assume an average of two residents per), and that half will use public transport or bikes to get to campus, that’s a lot of cars heading in and out of one residential area — all heading in the same direction, for the most part.

      Either it will make the Port Republic exit of I-81 MORE of a nightmare for half the day, or it will turn South Main Street into something of a parking lot.

      I also don’t understand why planning staff/commission is ‘approving’ this when, according to today’s DNR, “planning staff still believes that a residential development at that location is not in the city’s best interests.” If it isn’t, then for heaven’s sake, why is it even being considered? Is the city that hard up for revenue?

  2. Dan says:

    “The lesser of two evils” is quite an endorsement.

  3. Nicholas D.S. says:

    Spreading out student housing far from the main campus directly contradicts efforts to create a compact, densely developed city.

    What say does JMU itself have in how and where developers propose student housing? Are they intimately involved in such planning processes? If so, does JMU have clear policies or at least particular staff who are pushing for a centralized campus (including residences)?

    We will never be able to achieve a highly livable Harrisonburg if this kind of sprawling development continues. (Aren’t there still a few empty lots north of downtown that could handle multi-use development which could also house JMU students?)

  4. Jim says:

    I think what is being lost in the “lesser of two evils” comment is probably the fact that the subject site is likey already zoned for housing, maybe even for many years. Therefore, provided the developer meets subdivision/code requirements, there is nothing the city can do to prevent or stop the development. So, it appears the “revised” plan is better, hence, “the lesser of two evils”

    No doubt, this location does not at all appear to be a good location for housing, much less, dense student housing.

    • Dan says:

      I think you’re probably right. I wish the planning staff/commission were empowered to reject ill-advised growth so that Harrisonburg would develop as a coherent and livable city rather than a sprawled out bonanza for developers.

      • blondiesez says:

        Why aren’t they? Why do we have a planning staff/commission if their counsel is routinely rejected, and/or if they feel pressured into settling for lesser evils rather than something that’s actually GOOD for the city?

        Wasn’t this the development that was originally billed as offering affordable housing options for city residents priced out of the home-ownership market?

  5. Deb SF says:

    Full disclosure: I’m a member of Planning Commission and voted for this at the meeting last Wednesday.

    There’s a lot of history behind this particular plot of land – the details can be found here on page 12 and 13.

    But briefly, back in 2006, this property was rezoned from M-1 (general Industrial) and B-2 (general business district) to R-7 (medium density mixed residential planned community district). Staff recommended against the rezoning, PC was split down the middle, and City Council said yes 5-0. So the reason this property is going to be residential rather than business/industrial is because of this original rezoning decision made by council 4 years ago; see page 35-38 for details. (For the record, the 2006 Council that voted in favor of this during the May 9 meeting, included members Chenault, Lantz, Pace, Eagle and Rogers)

    Interestingly enough, this May 9 vote occurred a little more than a week after the Tuesday, May 2, 2006 election, in which George Pace Hugh Lantz decided not to run, Larry Rogers lost his seat, and Carolyn Frank and Ted Byrd won, taking office the following July 1.

    But last Wednesday night, most of us thought that the developer/owner’s presentation was, given the decision made by the 2006 council, the *best* development plan the staff and PC have seen in the interim. The vote was 6-0-1. They’d done some careful market research and are designing the complex to attract the high-end renter, with a swimming pool, gym, movie complex and ball field. When the Blue Stone Trail is constructed by the city, the bike connector that will extend along 81 from JMU through and past this complex, the developer will connect their parking areas to the trail at their expense, not ours.

    A couple of us noted after the vote that, as this development succeeds, it will draw students from older complexes. As these empty out, they end up being used by other demographic groups, a perfect example of *unplanned* development. The resulting consequences can be expensive – student housing isn’t designed to work as a neighborhood for young kids, close to schools, with all accompanying features we generally expect.


    I thought George decided not to run in the 2008 election.

  7. DebSF says:

    You’re right, Charlie, thanks, I’ve edited the comment to reflect the correction.

  8. Deb SF says:

    And in fairness, after the vote, a few PCers from both parties expressed support for improved economic development in the southern side of the city, noting that this development might tip the balance towards more availability and variety of goods and services in that part of town. Will adding a few hundred more students considerably south of JMU with $ to spend shift the demand enough to, maybe, encourage the opening a Martin’s (or something similar) along the southern tip of the city? We’ll see, I guess.

  9. JGFitzgerald says:

    FYI: Some council history is posted here.

  10. Renee says:

    My overall opinion is: JMU is planning to increase their enrollment over the next several years so I think there will be a demand for more housing; a lot of JMU students are wealthy and their parents will pay a premium for higher-end “luxury” apartments; a large student presence may be good for that end of town (though when assessing where to live, I’m not sure how appealing that area would currently be).

    One downside of spreading out is that it makes it much harder for the students to walk or bike to school, so hopefully buses will run often enough so those students have options other than driving. What Deb said about the Blue Stone Trail for biking is interesting.

    Also, the Stone Spring/Erickson connector is bring built, which will (hopefully) increase the ease of getting around that side of town.

    On a related note, the current housing is deteriorating:

    I think overall, new student housing construction is inevitable and I think there are some positives to having it at that end of town.

  11. Scott Rogers says:

    JMU is planning to increase their enrollment, but VERY slowly because of state budget cuts.

    Also, even with slow JMU growth, current off campus vacancy (approx. 20%) will only decline to 17% by Fall 2011. If this developer builds out this project, off campus vacancy will increase to roughly 23%.

    I have a few more details and notes here.

    • Renee says:

      Nice analysis in that article on vacant student housing, Scott.

      Question – is it really impossible to have ‘mixed’ housing in a complex? I understand not wanting to raise a kid in an apartment when a party is going on upstairs on a Friday night, but couldn’t certain sections/buildings in ‘student’ complexes be rented to non-students?

      Who gets to decide who can and can’t live there? Can they discriminate? For instance, if I just walked in with a few other people and we were looking for a 4-bedroom apartment to rent, but weren’t current JMU students, would they turn us away?

      • blondiesez says:

        They couldn’t turn you away, no. But speaking as a person whose office is surrounded by what has become student housing, I can’t see such commingling working out well.

        The last ten days of classes/exams, the houses across the road from us usually throw such raucous daytime outdoor parties that it’s hard to hear yourself on the phone. This year was the first time in five years they didn’t, and I can’t help but think the riot may have had something to do with that.

        And don’t even get me started about graduation weekend.

        I don’t have a problem with that area being zoned mixed use. In fact, I fail to see how student housing is somehow more preferential to condos/townhomes/single family homes.

        If you assume 466 residences would have an average of three residents apiece — of which one would probably be a child — that’s still less bodies and cars than the 1,500 beds estimated by the current developers. And yeah, you can argue that not all of the students will have cars: however, a development THAT far from campus is almost guaranteed to self-select students with automobiles. Especially a ‘high-end’ one, where one might presume said students have more expendable income than those who can’t afford gas, parking, or the other attendant costs associated with maintaining a car.

  12. JGFitzgerald says:

    For those interested in wonkish detail, the HRHA housing study from 2005 is posted here.


    Joe – I try to read everything that is put on here. You and Deb are killing me.
    Thanks – Charlie

  14. Derik says:

    I’m confused…. Didn’t Harmon Construction/Velocity get a student housing project on Stone Spring Rd tabled or denied recently ( 6 months or so) because the cities student housing is over built?? (probably not the official word) I don’t know the details of those PC/CC meetings but the word on the street was the city basically said, not right now. That project is directly adjacent to existing student housing and considerably closer to campus. Don’t have time to look it up. Am I wrong about that? Why do we have to pick the lesser of two evils? Can’t this project be set aside for now? Does it do anyone any good to have empty housing and retail space? No matter how nice it is?
    If this developer has money to burn I would suggest buying up Hunters Ridge apartments and starting over with quality high end student housing within walking distance to campus. No offense to anyone that may currently live there but that community has become an eyesore and nuisance to the city. I would think JMU would support that kind of project in whatever way they can. It’s not exactly the first thing you want prospective students to see when they come to visit. Plus lots of them are for sale.

  15. Barnabas says:

    With the new hospital going up on Port Road I think that getting as much student housing away from that area and dispersing students could help reduce congestion. Also JMU is running out of directions to expand. The properties that border JMU will likely become JMU property within the next decade or so, so building new housing further away makes pretty good sense.


    Derik – the Harmon project on Stone Spring Road next to the I-81 bridge was rezoned over three years ago. I think construction was stopped shortly after it began because of market factors. A rezoning for a large student housing project behind the shopping center on Port Road was denied over four years ago and was eventually gifted by the owner to JMU I believe. I believe Barnabas is correct in his surmise that JMU will acquire additional property along Port Road as it becomes available.
    Thanks – Charlie

  17. Derik says:

    Can you say “urban sprawl”?!. Listen, in my line of work I’m all for appropriate development of land. In particular an infill project such as this one. I think it’s a good use of the land….at an appropriate time. Further diluting both the single family and or student housing markets (not to mention commercial) at this time is detrimental to the market.
    The idea should be to create density near the school so the students can walk or take mass transit to campus. By creating housing further from campus you ENSURE traffic will get worse on primary roads near campus because students will have to drive from their residence. Dispersing students does not reduce congestion. You merely give them a reason to need to drive.

    • Dan says:

      Exactly. But instead of creating density near campus, developers have been creating density wherever land is cheap and the city builds four-lane roads to campus. It’s a great deal if you’re a developer.

      • Scott Rogers says:

        Dan — I’m not sure I follow. Where are the college complexes that aren’t close to campus to which the city has built four-lane roads?

  18. Derik says:

    My how time flies! I do now recall mention of market factors as the issue(I think this would relate to current occupancy rates). Thanks for the correction Charlie!

  19. If this is the “lesser of two evils,” what is the one that is (or would be) worse? Clearly, it was unwise to rezone earlier from M, but it must also be recognized that the projections and state of the housing market looked a lot different then. As it is, given the something like 60-75% vacancy rate in Hunter’s Ridge, I have to question the brains of the developer who is going for this. Do they really think that lots of high income students are going to want to live way the heck out there?

    • Scott Rogers says:

      Barkley: I definitely agree — I wonder whether the developer is aware of current market conditions. It seems rather unlikely that they’ll be able to lease this property.

      Perhaps they’ll start it (like the Stone Spring Road project), and then stop once they realize market conditions aren’t conducive!

    • Deb SF says:

      Barkley- yes, they do. They absolutely do believe that. This is “class A” housing, and they believe there is excess demand (I think they termed it undersupply in the presentation) in this niche of the market. They’ve done an extensive bit of market research.

      • Deb,

        Well, I know that Urban Exchange is actually pretty well filled up, although a lot of that is Rosetta Stone workers who may not be all that keen on living off at the south end of town. Maybe these folks have done some careful market research, although there have also been quite a few consulting companies that have played some funny games with numbers around here before for credulous clients.

        I will grant that (although neither you nor anybody else called me on it) high income students are not in Hunter’s Ridge, so the vacancies there prove little about the high income student market. So, maybe these people can pull it off and maybe it is better than alternatives given the unfortunate past rezoning. But it is also true that JMU is likely to have slower growth in the near future than was previously forecast. Guess we shall just have to wait and see.

        • Deb SF says:

          This presentation was the first time I’ve heard an explicit public discussions about going after a specific segment of the student housing market (though of course we know student housing is a segmented market, just as single-family housing is). And that discussion wasn’t so much part the original presentation, as it was shared in response to a PC question.

          Some of the details the developer covered in his presentation about the construction plans indicate that this isn’t going to be ticky-tacky development, stuff that won’t age well and stand up to the hard use that students put these complexes through. In response to one question about the safety issues about decks and stairwells in student housing, the developer indicated that they will (in some cases) exceed the minimum standards for joist placement, stuff like that. They’re going to build in order to market quality, so I’m guessing this complex will look a lot better as time goes on than some of the older ones do now.

          Doesn’t solve the Hunters Ridge problem, though. Makes that whole issue of drawing kids out of older complexes worse. It’s the “what do we do with X when students don’t want to live there anymore” problem.

  20. BTW, just for the record, I have no problem saying that private businesses may be making bad decisions. I said that about the landlord who drove Old Dominion coffee out of business with a rent increase, and I note that the ground floor where Old Dominion was located remains vacant. Brilliant stuff.

  21. HRHO says:

    I hope the developers loose their shirt! Money is the only deterrent.

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