Amy Cunningham
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The owners of 318 Center, LLC, were sent back to the drawing board following a March 22 planning commission meeting.
Commissioners recommended changes to a proposed condominium project they hope to construct on property located at 318 S. Center Street.
Mike and Joyce O’Connor, operating as 318 Center, LLC, hope to tear down the dwelling on the property to develop it into an eight unit, maintenance-provided senior condo complex.  If all goes well with the first project, the couple hints they may tear down an adjoining property they own to put an additional condominium building at the site.
As part of normal development procedure, they found themselves before the planning commission hoping to gain approval for their project. However, they were left with many more questions than answers on how to please commissioners with a structure that is both functional and aesthetically appealing.
According to the city’s website, the Planning Commission for the city of Gardner, is a citizen body that reviews development proposals for compliance with the city’s adopted plans and development policies. Any development within the city is required first to gain the approval of the commission before plans will be sent to the city council for approval.
The O’Connors were hoping to have their project approved during last week’s meeting, however the planning commissioners told the couple that the plans need more tweaking before they’ll be ready to recommend them to the city council for approval.
Harold Phelps, an engineer working with the O’Connors, spoke on their behalf.  He said that the couple has been working on this project for some time, before the most recent criteria was adopted by the city of Gardner.
“My understanding was you all passed your site standards as late as November of last year,” he stated to commissioners.  “The O’Connors started looking at and designing this last year.”
Commissioners took issue with the orientation of the building, shown in plans to face north.
They debated the density of the complex – the structure will put 8.3 dwellings per acre, .3 dwellings more than the requirement allows. Commissioners also had problems with the height of the three-story structure, which exceeds the 35-foot requirement established by the city.
Commissioner Dan Popp said even with a change in the pitch of the roof, the structure would exceed the maximum height requirement. The O’Connors plan to install elevators that will, most likely, operate with a hoisting mechanism that will require additional height, Popp explained.
He also said that the couple failed to provide drawings showing louvers and fans that would be required if parking is located beneath the building on the first floor as planned. He worried how those would be incorporated into the building’s aesthetics.
City staff showed several dwelling structures in the area, including 340, 400 and 420 S. Center Streets. Phelps felt those photographs were not indicative of other structures in the area.
“That’s rather selective,” he said.  “If you take a real picture of every house in this area, most are real boxy and don’t have the architectural details shown in these pictures.”
The property’s owner and the developer of the project, Joyce O’Connor, took to the microphone to explain the couple’s deep roots in the community and their concern for maintaining a certain look and feel to the neighborhood.
“Nobody is more concerned about value than we are because of our personal residence and our ties with the community,” she said.  The couple’s home is just around the corner on Kansas Avenue from where the condos will be built.
She told commissioners there is a market for maintenance provided senior housing that Gardner is missing.  As a realtor in the area, she has had to turn people away from the city because there are no homes that fit that model.
O’Connor asked commissioners what they would need specifically to change in order to gain approval to proceed.
Commissioner Andy Copeland told the couple he was unsure, but changes did need to be made.
“I’m not an architect, I can’t tell you what I’m after, but I would like to see more character to the front,” he said.
Popp echoed his sentiment saying, “I mean, I don’t want todesign the building for you.” He suggested using different colors and varying the heights and materials used to create visual interest for the front of thestructure.  He recommended the coupledrive to 135th and Metcalf to view some apartments that have been constructed using the same materials the O’Connors have proposed to see howthey used varying heights and faux windows to create a look that is visually appealing.
“The biggest things are the fans and vents that are going tobe dictated by codes.  That becomes an object on the elevation and (will stick out like a) sore thumb,” he said.