Valparaiso University (VU) recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Valparaiso’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The petition is challenging the BZA’s three to two decision, in Jan. 2021, to grant a parking variance to Uptown East Apartments’ project to convert half its building into workforce housing.
City zoning codes require a certain parking to resident population ratio, which Uptown’s planned project didn’t meet due to it originally being used only for student housing. Parking concerns were minimal while the property remained student housing, as not every student had a car on campus and those that did were there for the academic year as opposed to year-round. The conversion project will bring more year-round residents to the area who will likely have vehicles, adding to the parking demands for Uptown. As a result, it was necessary for Uptown to receive a parking variance from the city to continue with their conversion project. The workforce housing units will be for those making between 50% to 70% of the area median income (AMI).
Once the variance was approved, all interested parties--this includes VU--have 30 days to file an appeal of the decision. On the final allotted day, VU filed the lawsuit.
“The university believes parking will be insufficient for Uptown East’s proposal, which will increase the demand for parking, even if the city dedicates additional spaces on LaPorte Avenue to Uptown East,” said Nicole Niemi, VU’s Chief of Communications Officer, in a statement.
After the completion of Uptown’s housing project, there will be a total of 119 new apartment units. Between all four of Uptown’s buildings, workforce and student housing, there will be a total of 239 units.
“The city of Valparaiso attached a requirement to this variance that public property along LaPorte Avenue, where the Valparaiso University Police Department (VUPD) is located, be dedicated to the petitioner to solve the parking deficiency. This will negatively impact the VUPD, which handles emergency response and policing for the university campus,” Niemi said.
VU also speculates that a lack of available parking will result in excess traffic, leading to health and safety issues for students, as well as illegal parking. VU has also expressed that St Teresa’s Catholic Student Center will be affected by lack of parking. Spots utilized for parking during weekend services at St Teresa’s will become allocated overflow parking for Uptown residents.
Currently, there are 172 onsite parking spaces available with an additional 13 provided by Horizon Bank. There are 80 spots of permit parking along LaPorte Avenue, making the total parking spaces available to Uptown’s apartments 265. City Council will also be asked to approve 55 new parking spaces along LaPorte Avenue.
“The city recognizes that [VU] has concerns about parking on LaPorte Avenue. The challenge is that every reasonable solution requires cooperation of [VU], something they have been unwilling to contribute. [VU] owns land to the north, west and south of the Uptown Apartments In the past, [VU] made parking available to the Uptown Apartments’ residents, but has not been willing to do so now,” said Patick Lyp, Valparaiso city attorney.
Uptown and the city, with collaborations from VU, have been closely working together on this project since April 2020. Prior to the lawsuit, the workforce housing units were projected to begin construction in June 2021. The lawsuit now has the possibility of delaying the conversion process, but is not suspected to cause a significant delay.
Before granting the variance, the BZA was heavily involved in engaging with both VU and Uptown to develop a parking plan to help alleviate any issues with a lack of available parking. The plan was established after a span of nine months of continuous research and communication efforts made by the BZA.
“The Uptown East project and the surrounding area is challenged for parking as it sits today, a situation that will be exacerbated with the addition of apartment units to the property,” Niemi said. “The university has consistently remonstrated against the parking variance petition due to concerns related to insufficient parking.”
As this lawsuit progresses, the city, and all other parties involved, will put together a record. This record will include a transcript, any exhibits and the lists of people who spoke during the BZA’s decision process. This record will then be sent to Porter County Superior Court Judge Mike Fish, who will hear the arguments from both sides.
Fish will be focusing on technical defaults and action accuracy. Technical defaults include timely notices and when things were filed, overall, simply ensuring processes were followed correctly by Uptown and the BZA. The BZA will also be under review to decide if their actions to approve the variance were appropriate. Since the BZA was given discretion in granting the variance, Fish is examining whether their actions were consistent with Indiana law. The matter could take anywhere from 12-18 months.
“[Uptown is] obviously very disappointed that Valparaiso [University] filed the lawsuit as opposed to either coming to us and talking to us about the fact they were that unhappy,” said Larry Gough, an administrator of the Uptown East Apartments. “First and foremost, if they’re willing to talk to us based on the long relationship, and it was a good one, we would love to meet with them directly or with the city and meet with them, and try to understand and resolve their misunderstanding and their issues with the zoning. We’re also prepared to defend ourselves in the court of law and we feel very bullish on our position.”
VU and Uptown have maintained a partnership for 11 years due to Uptown previously serving as solely student housing. Despite the lawsuit, Uptown continues to sustain this partnership and provide VU with 120 units of off-campus student housing.
“[Uptown is] not fearful that the suit was filed, we’re disappointed, but not fearful,” Gough said. “I want to resolve this and understand [VU’s] issues and resolve this mutually and move forward.”
The city remains in support of Uptown’s effort to create workforce housing, while VU wishes to view a traffic study, safety plan and an on-street parking plan before the project progresses.
The Torch will continue developing this story as more information becomes available.