Commission postpones decision on Rollins faculty apartments

The liberal arts college offered a concession right out of the gate by reducing the number of units from 48 to 39, but commissioners wanted more

Jan. 25, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The City Commission on Wednesday postponed a decision on a request from Rollins College to build faculty apartments a few blocks north of Fairbanks Avenue from the liberal arts campus despite a significant reduction in units and new project renderings.

Rollins President Grant Cornwell immediately acknowledged nearby residents’ discontent over the proposal and offered to reduce the number of units from 48 to 39.

“We’ve heard the concerns about parking and we’ve heard concerns about density so we come here to you today prepared to build a smaller project than we originally proposed,” he said, explaining that he sees faculty apartments as “strategic” to the college’s mission and “nobody is making any money here … this isn’t a business deal.”

But that did little to quell concerns and several commissioners presented lists of additional demands and questions from the length of time Rollins must maintain the project as faculty and staff housing, to what defines faculty, the materials used to construct the building, potential mandatory solar power to the building’s aesthetics.

The number of stories and whether the roof is sloped or flat emerged as perhaps the biggest sticking point of the night. Typically buildings along that stretch of Welbourne Avenue are restricted to 2.5 stories with a sloped roof and dormer windows. But Rollins is asking for three story vertical construction with a flat roof, which is allowed just blocks away in the city’s Central Business District.

Becky Wilson, an attorney from Lowndes who represents Rollins, explained that the dormer windows would not work because the third level needs to be used for full units and sloped walls would interfere in the design.

“We also worked a little on the renderings,” she said, nodding to concerns expressed by residents at last week’s Planning & Zoning Board meeting about the architecture.

She emphasized that Rollins will continue to own and control the building and would prohibit tenants from draping items over the balconies or making them unsightly in other ways.

Some of the residents’ concerns conjured images of a fraternity house versus up to three-bedroom units for new professors and their families. A number of residents of the Douglas Grand condominium building said they feared their own units will drop in value because of Rollins’ planned framed construction with what they called too few architectural details to emulate the Spanish-Mediterranean style the main campus is known for.

“Please consider whether or not you would purchase a $1 million residence across the street from what would be at best an average maintained, subsidized apartment complex,” read one email to commissioners from a resident.

“It is the appearance of the rental facility that makes it even more distasteful,” read another.

“Not to sound snotty, but this is the type of apartment better suited for cities like Fern Park or Casselberry,” a resident wrote.

Wilson clarified that the apartments would not be restricted by income, but the college plans to charge rents based on affordability for people who earn up to 120%, or perhaps even more, of the area median income.

Cornwell has said he envisions tenure-seeking faculty who are early in their careers to utilize the units so they can afford to live near campus, where many home prices easily exceed $1 million.

As the meeting went on, it became clear there weren’t enough votes for Rollins to win approval, particularly after Mayor Phil Anderson said he wasn’t comfortable with a three-story building and other factors.

“For me, compatibility is less about intensity and more about what the building is going to look like,” he said.

Anderson urged residents to understand that whether the college pays property taxes on the property or not is up to federal  and state rules governing tax-exempt organizations and a determination by the county property appraiser. Typically, non-profit groups — even big-monied ones like hospital systems AdventHealth and Orlando Health and major universities — don’t pay property taxes when the land is used to further the group’s mission.

City Attorney Kurt Ardaman said there is case law to support faculty housing as a purpose that would qualify for an exemption.

The City Commission voted unanimously to table a decision until its next meeting on Feb. 14.

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