Did Hyde Park residents win a minor battle, only to concede the war? That's a question that won't be answered for many months yet, but after two postponements, countless hours of public testimony, and more than a few sleepless nights for members of the Alliance to Save Hyde Park, Tuesday night's Planning Commission meeting made one thing clear: Hyde Park Baptist Church won't be linking their existing five-story garage to a planned new one on adjacent property, however the garage plan itself ultimately shakes out.
Voting 6 to 1, with commissioner Betty Baker opposed, the PC decided to turn down the church's request to vacate the alley next to their existing garage on 39th and Speedway. The church was seeking the alley vacation so that it could, in the words of HPBC attorney Richard Suttle, "develop a better garage, a more functional garage, a garage with more setbacks on [Ave.] D," where the exit to the proposed garage will be located. Neighbors say those setbacks, which would put a 10-foot buffer of grass and small trees between the garage and the adjacent residential street, will do nothing to mitigate the damage caused by the proposed 50-foot-high structure, which would wrap around the only remaining house on the east side of the block.
Still, the victory on the alley vacation was no minor triumph for the church's neighbors, who've seen their share of disappointments since this whole process got started in earnest late last year. Had the church succeeded in emptying the alley, neighborhood supporters said, it would have meant redirecting electric, water and sewer lines, going against the stated intentions of Hyde Park's adopted neighborhood plan, and "set[ting] up a precedent for giving away alleys piecemeal," according to neighborhood attorney Rachael Rawlins.
More importantly, the alley victory gives the neighborhood some badly needed wiggle room to negotiate with city staff and council members over the size and scale of the proposed garage, which they say is limited to 40% impervious cover under both the neighborhood plan and the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD) that has governed zoning around the church since 1990. The debate over the allowable size of the garage is way too complex to get into here, except to note that it centers on varying interpretations of the language of the NCCD. The church believes it can build the garage at up to 100% impervious cover (the current plans call for "90-plus" percent, according to Suttle); the neighbors say the site's underlying single-family zoning restricts them to 40%.
That question is sure to come up again, as is the debate over what kind of setbacks -- if any -- will be provided on Ave. D. And that's where the neighborhood may have lost the war. If the garage gets built as proposed (and no one is contesting that it will, in some form, be built), its wall will directly abut Ave. D with no setbacks whatsoever from the narrow residential street. "I would say to the neighbors, be careful what you pray for -- your prayers may be answered," Baker said just before the vote. "I'm not sure that the denial of this alley vacation tonight is going to be the answer to those prayers." How, and indeed whether, those prayers get answered will be decided in a matter of months, when the church's alternate proposal -- which won't be filed unless the Public Works director upholds the Planning Commission's Tuesday recommendation -- comes before City Council for appeal.