By Leslee Kulba – Jim Siemens owns the property on which the Patton-Parker House sits. The house was built in 1868 and 1869, and it is part of the Chestnut Hill National Register Historic District and a historic landmark in its own right. Siemens invested considerably in improving the house and grounds and built a two-story carriage house on the back of the property he had hoped to use for lodging. But that would require a zoning change.
Siemens uses the main building as an office for his law practice, and he rents space to other attorneys. He also lives nearby, so he claimed to have a vested interest in preserving the neighborhood fabric. He argued the historic significance of the site rendered his request too unique to set a precedent for spot zoning for short-term rentals.
The Planning & Zoning Commission had voted 5-1 in favor of the project, but staff recommended denying the request. Arguments were those raised against short-term rentals in general; namely, reducing housing stock (co-opting the builder’s intent) near work and transit; and disrupting neighborhoods with transients and commercial activity.
Many neighbors who spoke during public comment expressed appreciation for what Siemens had done with the property. They spoke in favor of the zoning change, but others were opposed in the name of neighborhood preservation.
Siemens reminded council that he had come before them two years ago with a proposal to convert a bungalow on Madison Avenue into a law office. Then, as now, Siemens was described as having made great improvements to the property in his own neighborhood. The request was denied as vociferous neighborhood objection resulting in a protest petition forced a supermajority vote. Siemens said council had prevented him from doing what he had wanted to do with that property, so he made an offer on the Patton-Parker house and navigated the process receiving affirmations at every step that he would be able to offer lodging.
Jane Mathews argued Siemens had pulled a bait and switch. “The wheels are in motion,” she said, noting Siemens was a lawyer who couldn’t claim naivete about the way things were unfolding. She said he didn’t need extra money from short-term rentals to help maintain the grounds because the historical designation entitled him to 20, 10, and 50 percent tax credits from, respectively, federal, state, and local government. Lastly, she opined the Patton-Parker family would not deem Siemens’ intent inline with their original intent for the property.
James Patton, a great grandson of Thomas Patton, told how the family was historically progressive, helping with Reconstruction. When his aunt transferred ownership of the property, she had wanted the new owner to be mindful of the grounds, and Patton believed Siemens was doing a very good job at that.
A motion to approve the rezoning failed on a 3-3 split. Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, and Councilor Julie Mayfield were opposed. Councilman Gordon Smith was recused, citing the development of a reciprocal referral relationship with the applicant.
In Other Matters –
Andrew Fletcher presented final recommendations from the Haywood Advisory Team tasked with coming up with short-term uses for the Pit of Despair, otherwise known as 68-76 Haywood Street and 33-37 Page Avenue. The parcels across from the US Cellular Center have been vacant for a decade, with controversy raging when the city proposed first a parking deck and then a hotel for the space. Citizens argued construction could harm the nearby Basilica of St. Lawrence structurally and aesthetically. Proper dispensation of the property became a big issue during the last city council election, and to date the space remains vacant.
At the mayor’s request, the advisory team had winnowed their first list. The recommended short-term uses Bothwell described as “lighter, quicker, cheaper” now included landscaping, performance space, retail, education, housing, public restrooms, and recycling.
Smith made a motion to proceed with issuing a request for proposals for a design firm to act on the revised recommendations. Before the vote, Manheimer cautioned with a word about a park created in Portland, Maine, by popular demand, which remained vacant because it met no one’s expectations. “I still feel like this is the beginning of a long road,” she said. The measure was approved unanimously.
By way of the consent agenda, council approved $319,948 for a disparity study. The study will determine whether or not the city has been discriminating against or failing to reach out to any particular class. Economic Development Specialist Brenda Mills clarified the study does not propose to oversee private-sector business policies, but will investigate only the city’s contracting and purchasing records. Council also approved spending $25,000 for a 50-50 federal match for a bike-share feasibility study and $24,000 for an 80-20 federal match for an upgraded transit master plan, and approved pursuing two additional grants for transportation projects.