Photograph by Carol Polsgrove

Tom Evans, Mike Hollingsworth, Helen Hollingsworth and Jacqui Bauer enjoy the intimate feel of their Elm Heights neighborhood. Their neighbors opposed city plans to allow more rental units in their neighborhood at a recent City Plan Commission meeting.

In my dozen years in Oakland and Berkeley, I lived in two studio apartments, two one-bedroom apartments, one backyard cottage without a bathroom and -- after my daughter was born -- converted rec rooms in a family home at the top of China Hill.

We loved that place with its windows overlooking the orange trees in the yard below and beyond that, Lake Merritt. For us, a "granny flat" was just what we and our landlord-family needed, and I expect we would have happily stayed there if I had not taken a job at IU.

Moving to Bloomington, we bought a cottage in Elm Heights --1,200 square feet on a small lot. After a couple of years, when I talked seriously about moving back to California, my daughter drew herself up to her full 5-year-old height and said, "We can't. My friends are here, and besides, I know all the plants in the yard."

Well, that was that, and we stayed, and Elm Heights turned out to be a great place for a child to grow up. My daughter could walk or ride her bike to the park, to her friends' houses, and later, downtown to Rhino's, WFHB Youth Radio and her after-school job at the library. It was a great place for me, too. I soon dispensed with an IU parking permit and walked to work every day, in fair weather and foul, and on days I didn't work, I walked downtown for lunch or a few minutes in the library.

Thus it was that, on May 4, I joined the parade of Elm Heights residents who trouped down to City Hall to oppose the Unified Development Ordinance amendment that would have opened neighborhoods across Bloomington to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) -- backyard or garage apartments or apartments carved out of houses. Though I had lived happily in such a unit and see the point of them at some times, in some places, my years in Elm Heights tell me they have to be carefully placed.

Elm Heights already has a thick section of rental housing, including houses that have expanded in various odd ways. Student-occupied rental homes dot the rest of the neighborhood.

There comes a "tipping point," one of my neighbors told the commission, when what was a family neighborhood becomes a student neighborhood. Others said they doubted the city would enforce the new rule that homeowners had to live on the site of their ADUs, since the city can't seem to enforce the existing rule that no more than three unrelated adults can live in a house in areas zoned for single families.


Photograph by Carol Polsgrove

The Plan Commission voted down a proposal to allow more Accessory Dwelling Units in neighborhoods like Elm Heights citywide, though the idea is not necessarily dead. The Plan Commission or City Council could reconsider.

And who would believe that in this neighborhood, so close to the campus and downtown, the rents would be low ­- the justification given for authorizing the ADUs?

What we feared is more short-term student rentals eroding the continuity of ties that hold a neighborhood together. One neighbor plows my drive on snowy days. Another keeps my goldfish when I’m gone. In turn, I’ve watered flowers, shared tools and handymen. We don’t want to see that dense fabric of neighborliness disintegrate.

Nor do we want to swap our yards for paved parking lots to satisfy the amendment’s mandate that any lot with an ADU on it would need parking for three vehicles. As one speaker before the Plan Commission pointed out, we already have residents in our yards -- squirrels, rabbits, birds, an occasional skunk and more deer wandering through than we had before Deer Park displaced them.

Writing about another university town, my friend Becky O’Malley observed in a Berkeley Daily Planet editorial on development, “Plausible-sounding plans to fill up every remaining open space in our already developed urban areas could mean that there will be nowhere left to put our victory gardens.” That thought apparently did not occur to the Environmental Commission, which, lulled by the hope that ADUs would increase low-income housing and neighborhood diversity, ignored the loss of green space that could result.

In the end, most Plan Commission members -- several of them residents of Elm Heights -- shared our concerns. Isabel Piedmont Smith said she feared this amendment would drive more families away from Elm Heights. Susan Fernandes scoffed at the idea that ADU rentals would be affordable when they were so close to campus. Jack Baker acknowledged the “cracks are pretty wide” in enforcement of occupancy law.

Only two of the 11-member commission voted for the amendment, although others expressed willingness to reconsider the idea if it were tweaked. The City Council may still have a shot at approval, Planning Director Tom Micuda tells me.

If the amendment does come up for discussion again, Piedmont Smith, a member of the council as well as the Plan Commission, told me she would want to hear from more neighborhoods. The amendment applied to single-family neighborhoods throughout the city, such as Hoosier Acres and Park Ridge, but the commission heard mostly from Elm Heights residents, along with a few others from core neighborhoods who voiced support for the plan.


Elm Heights resident Ada Simmons inherited her irises from her grandparents.

(Although The Stands and Hyde Park were mentioned as possibilities at the meeting, they would not have been covered because, as Micuda explained to me, they are customized zoning districts called Planned United Developments.)

I was talking all this over with a friend from Prospect Hill who has himself rehabilitated a 1920s carriage house into what could be defined as an ADU, and he suggested that it is a mistake to apply development concepts like New Urbanism in broad strokes across the community. They should be fine-tuned to specific situations.

For that reason, perhaps ADUs could be considered as part of the city’s neighborhood planning process and applied piecemeal, neighborhood by neighborhood. Meanwhile, anyone who wanted to add an ADU in any neighborhood could apply for a zoning variance.

As we re-envision the town for a new time, the Elm Heights revolt suggests we need to understand Bloomingtonians’ fondness for some things as they are. I’ve heard expressions of serious grief over the rapid changes downtown ­- the big-box apartment houses, the disappearance of ice cream stores and Ladyman’s.

To some folks, the downtown has suffered almost the equivalent of a clear-cut, with tree farms replacing the woods that once grew there. Where community already exists, let us make change mindfully -- not destroy the village to save it.

Carol Polsgrove can be reached at ccpolsgrove@gmail.com.

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For more information
The Locavore's Dilemma: Finding Places to Plant -- Berkeley Daily Planet