DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
Once envisioned as luxury apartments or condos with underground parking and postcard views of the La Plata Mountains, a 2-acre slab on the hillside of College Drive lies abandoned except for a family of cats.
The feline inhabitants seem appropriate for a property with nine lives.
It was the home of Boker Lumber until the business closed about six years ago. Because of the proximity to Fort Lewis College, some neighbors have feared the property would turn into student housing, but that “has never been the case,” said Emil Wanatka, who has been trying to develop 960 E. College Drive for the last two years.
Wanatka has given up on the idea of developing high-end residential units with amenities such as underground parking, elevators, Wi-Fi, large private patios and a workout area because he could not get city approval for an 80-unit project to justify the investment.
Through the politics of compromise, Wanatka now is thinking of downscaling the project to 50 residential units and marketing it as more affordable workforce housing, recognizing that “the need is enormous.”
Without more affordable housing, Wanatka, president of Timberline Builders, said “rentals will become more expensive. People who can’t afford it will be forced to live in substandard housing. They will be forced to live further from downtown. They will be forced to live in Ignacio, Bayfield. They will have more driving time, which is in complete conflict with what we wanted in (the city’s comprehensive plan).”
City councilors agree with the need for infill development, or revitalizing underused urban space to minimize sprawl.
During their last discussion of the property in April, “we signaled our willingness to consider such a proposal,” City Councilor Dick White said. “Infill development is good for the long term, when fuel prices will become an even greater consideration for people. In addition, the site has many advantages for such a use, particularly its proximity to downtown, to public transportation and to the college.”
While infill developments might make sense in theory, they are hard to achieve in practice, Wanatka said.
“Infill development, whether it’s here or any community in the United States, is a challenge,” he said, “The cost of land is high. NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard) is widespread throughout the country. Oftentimes, our codes don’t align with our city’s comprehensive plans. I believe that’s the case in Durango.”
City Councilor Paul Broderick also faults the city’s “strict land-use code” for decreasing the “supply of housing while discouraging rehabilitation of our substandard housing stock.”
The city’s land-use code currently is undergoing an overhaul. Wanatka is hoping it will be revised so it does not discourage urban infill.
As an example, Wanatka said research has led him to believe that Durango has the most onerous parking requirements in the country.
For a multifamily housing project, standards require a one-bedroom unit to have 1.7 parking spaces, a two-bedroom unit to have 2.3 parking spaces and a three-bedroom unit to have 2.5 parking spaces, he said.
“I know we think we have parking problems in Durango, but every community thinks it does,” Wanatka said.
At the April 17 meeting, city councilors told Wanatka they were willing to tweak parking standards so the Boker site could have 50 to 60 residential units but not a Walmart-style parking lot.
To the relief of neighbors, the multistory residential units would be pushed back against the hillside rather than sit on the lot’s western edge where it would loom over the homes on East Ninth Avenue, which was an original proposal.
The combination of worries concerning neighborhood incompatibility has made the project a tough sell with city planners and neighbors alike. Concerns included traffic, public safety because of the sharp curve on College Drive and the obtrusiveness of a proposed 45-foot tall structure atop a 20-foot hill rising above the single-family homes on Ninth Avenue.
To expedite approval for the project, Wanatka had asked the city for a zoning change in April, but the council rejected it on procedural grounds because a new zone classification would have precluded public hearings on the property’s development.
Still, the City Council encouraged Wanatka to go forward, suggesting it might approve more housing density than Wanatka’s zoning request would have allowed.
Steve Cadwallader, one of the partners in the project, has since sold his interest in the Boker project to a Michigan firm that invests in long-term projects.
Wanatka said it probably will be another six months before he comes back to the city with his proposal.
“Basically, we’re beginning with a clean palate,” he said. “As disappointing as it is, we may find new opportunity.”