When Is a 'Game Room' a Bedroom?

The fight over superduplexes continues at 1917 David Street

The stealth dorms at 1917 David Street
The "stealth dorms" at 1917 David Street (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Original West University Neighborhood Association President Nuria Zaragosa appears to have won her latest battle against developers of so-called "stealth dorms," squelching "stealth bedrooms" in the process. Plans to replace an existing house at 1917 David Street with a suspiciously large "duplex" had drawn persistent opposition from OWUNA, which appealed the city-approved building permit to the Board of Adjust­ment. The board sided 6-1 with the NA, reversing the city's original determination.

In fact, the board went a step further – issuing a new definition for "bedrooms" under the superduplex ordinance. The definition (which will now be part of the plan review process for duplexes) outlines ways to determine whether a room is a "bedroom" without relying solely on the word of the architect. Henceforth, a room shown on a floor plan should be considered a bedroom if it "has a minimum of 70 square feet in area and is not a kitchen, utility room, common living area or common circulation space"; has code-compliant exit areas for fire egress; is configured so that it could be a private space separate from other rooms; and has access to bathrooms the same way other rooms labeled "bedrooms" do. (The board added a clause which identifies the bathrooms as "full fixtured" so as not to unintentionally ban guest powder rooms.)

Under the existing superduplex ordinance, city staff had little ground to dispute the veracity of building plans. Though the ordinance limited duplexes to "three bedrooms," when it came to determining what is and isn't a bedroom, it came down to reading the word "bedroom" on the building plans. The new definition is intended to combat that default naivete.

In the David Street case, Zaragosa argued that it defied logic that a three-bedroom duplex needed 12 bathroom sinks. She maintained that rooms that were indistinguishable from the bedrooms aside from their labels of "study" and "game room" were intended to be used as bedrooms.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen made the case for common sense in the review process. He explained that he had taken the time to tour the property and was "struck very strongly" that the property was destined for superduplex or group residential use. "A lot of our planning and review is based on the honor system," said Von Ohlen. "I know if I take white paint and write 'pig' on the side of a brown cow, it's not going to turn it into a pig. It's still going to be a cow."

Neither Zaragosa nor the property owner's agent Mike McHone were enthusiastic about the ruling, and McHone said later he was preparing an appeal. He warned of "a slippery slope" and said that he felt the Planning Commission, which is exploring the issue separately, was the proper venue for the discussion.

Zaragosa said that while she's very tired of appealing the case, she would do so as many times as necessary. She added that whether or not the "bedroom loophole" would be closed was ultimately up to city staff. "Regard­less of what the code is, we need to have a sense that it will be enforced and that we will be protected when it is not," Zaragosa said. "Having to go through all these appeals to get code-compatible projects is discouraging."

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1917 David Street, Old West University Neighborhood Association, Nuria Zaragosa, Mike McHone, Board of Adjustment, superduplex, redevelopment, West Campus, zoning, zoning regulations

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