SANDY — After months of heated debate, the Sandy City Planning Commission has approved construction of a high-density condominium complex on an awkward tonguelike piece of city land that is bordered by neighboring cities Midvale and Cottonwood Heights.
Angry residents of all three cities crowded the council chambers this past week, some carrying signs that read, "Don't build the Berlin Wall in my backyard" and "Don't build towers over us." Mayors of Midvale and Cottonwood Heights have expressed their disapproval of the development, but despite months of protest, the Sandy planners gave the green light to developers, citing a strong need for the condos because of Utah's growing population.
"I don't think this is a surprise to anyone that this has been a challenge to us. You're working with new development with existing and established areas," said Alan Matheson, chairman of the Sandy Planning Commission. "These people have to go somewhere, and I think it's creating issues throughout the valley."
The Village at Park Avenue condominiums will start construction on 228 units as soon as possible at 7700 S. Union Park Ave. Four, four-story buildings, three small retail sites and an underground parking garage are included in the roughly $50 million project. In addition, the 9.4-acre site includes a five-story office building by a separate developer.
But the large buildings are only one of the things residents and neighboring city officials are upset about.
"I have never seen in my 35-year career, residential density of this magnitude," said Bob Furstenau, a Cottonwood Heights resident and owner of Furst Construction. "Because I'm a general contractor, I've literally been to hundreds of meetings like this and I've always been pro-development, arguing on the side of the development. But I just can't get my arms around this project."
The narrow, steep site sits on top of a hill, across retail district Union Heights but abutting with low-density communities in both Cottonwood Heights and Midvale. Because of the height and length of the condo project and neighboring office space, many residents will no longer have a view of the mountains or valley.
"What we have is literally almost a solid mile of a sound wall look," said Sue Ryser, a planning commissioner with Cottonwood Heights. "This is the visual image that will be given as people come up into Sandy."
Ryser presented 400 signatures of neighboring residents who signed a petition against the development. She argued the zone is not a good, intermediate buffer zone to connect the residential neighborhoods. The condos are part of a zone that has a 35-foot height limit, but per Sandy law, the Planning Commission removed the height restriction.
"This is a project that sits in the middle of two communities, and they were not aware of it," Ryser said. Although the developers have been attending Planning Commission meetings for years, neither Midvale or Cottonwood Heights knew of the project until last fall.
"Nobody asked and nobody told. We didn't know what was going on until the last few months," said Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini.
Mayor Seghini's primary concern is with the traffic. The main access to the project will be from the Midvale-end, off Union Park Avenue. Secondary routes and other cut-through roads in the city will also become heavy traffic spots, she said.
"Then, of course, the responsibility is on us to make those roads wider and bigger to carry a high-density housing unit," she said. "If we were contacted a year and a half ago, we would have some time to fix those roads."
"This is a perfect example of why regional planning has to be a part of regional conversation, particularly when you have multiple jurisdictions, and multiple municipalities need to be involved."
However, developer Dan Christensen, president and CEO of Commercial Mortgage & Investment, argued this past week that the site has dramatically changed with little thanks to him or Beecher Walker Architects for their endeavors. When Christensen first came to the Planning Commission in 2003, his concept included a six-story midrise building on the north end and a long four-story building on the south end, with 80,000 square feet of commercial retail on the ground floors.
After attending city meetings in Sandy, Cottonwood Heights and approaching residents, a significant amount of the retail was eliminated, parking was moved underground, buildings were divided, stories dropped and grade reduction and a stair-step design were added to lower heights.
"The whole issues have been discussing heights. Every meeting, we've mitigated some aspect to get to this point," Christensen said. "From our point, we have to be concerned with the people who are going to live here. We can't just start hacking at buildings."
City officials and residents have continually brought up the unattractiveness of Pinnacle Highland Apartments on Highland Drive and 7673 South and fears that Village at Park Avenue could have the same look. The massive apartments, residents and officials say, are an eye-sore to the mountain bench backdrop.
But Christensen says Village at Park Avenue will blend in with the hillside and include 45 percent landscaping.
"There's nodes of higher mass (apartments and condos) moving down the corridor such as this," said Lyle Beecher, CEO of Beecher Walker Architects. But unlike the flat, sound-wall look, "These are four-sided buildings, designed and articulated on all four sides."
Residents have conflicting viewpoints with the developers over how tall the buildings will be, saying height estimates do not account for decorative trim. Although they agree the changes are an improvement, the 18-foot grade reduction is only at the north frontage of the buildings, so residents on Creek Road will still face the back of tall condos.
"I will see buildings right out on the front of my property," said Perry Bolyard, a Cottonwood Heights resident who helped organize and lead a concerned citizen's group. "The density is more than anything that has ever been approved in Cottonwood Heights. It's a precedent of density-setting that we're very unhappy about."