The blue-collar city of Huntsville is becoming hip thanks in part to Sam Houston State University.
SHSU started out in the mid-1800s as a teacher-training school, and has now become one of the largest universities in Texas, complete with the need for student housing.
Sam Houston State currently has an enrollment of 21,224 students, which is a 28 percent growth over the past decade. However, the university has only 3,682 students living on campus. While the university has its share of commuters, the majority of the students are forced to live in off-campus student housing. This has become a significant concern for city officials.
“We have seen a massive increase in multi-use housing, where developers are renting by the bedroom, instead of by the unit,” Huntsville city planner Janet Ridley said. “We don’t have a defined-use category for these types of developments of such high-density.”
Currently, the Huntsville Development Code allows for a maximum of 29 units per acre, but does not address how many people can be living in each unit. The new developers had to get variances from the Huntsville Board of Adjustments for that unit per acre requirement, many of which have been approved. This has allowed for the construction of facilities with approximately 200 beds per acre.
“The Board of Adjustments have been uncomfortable with a lot of these variances, but they wanted to be accommodating for development in the city.”
There are currently six large apartment complexes in the city of Huntsville that are either under construction or have sent preliminary plans to the city for approval, amounting to over $100 million in residential development. Three of the facilities are large student housing complexes with shared living and kitchen spaces.
Sterling Huntsville on Sam Houston Avenue, the largest of the proposed properties, calls for 181 units and will house approximately 750 persons. Another project, Aspen Heights, on Hwy. 75 N., calls for a 183-unit complex with 648 beds. Meanwhile, Epoch Huntsville on 16th Street is planning a 132-unit complex with 641 leasees.
The most controversial project, The Armory, was completed earlier this year with 145 units of shared space. According to officials, the owners were able to inherit a density variance from the previous land owner and did not have to get an additional variance for the new facility.
“That previous property owner presented a mixed-use variance, which under our old code allowed for a higher density by providing other amenities,” Ridley added. “The property was sold and the new owner was able to use the density variance without providing the other things that were requested.”
“All of these developers are operating legally, but there has been a call for some additional guidelines to these complexes that will protect the community,” planner Leigha Larkins added.
New regulations that are being considered by the Huntsville Planning Commission would add things to the development code such as density restrictions, architectural guidelines, a maximum building height and ways to help preserve the community character.
Currently, an apartment complex can be built on any property in Huntsville that is zoned for management. On top of that, developers are also starting to look at building small shared-housing units in neighborhood conservation, which is also allowed under the current code.
“Right now there are very few regulations for any shared-housing complexes,” Larkins added. “This is all about us trying to protect the safety and welfare of the community.”
The changes to the development code are still in the planning stages, and community input is currently being sought. Once approved by the Planning Commission, the measures will then go before public hearings and have to be approved by the Huntsville City Council by ordinance.
“There is still a lot of opportunity for public involvement,” Ridley added.
The next scheduled meeting of the Huntsville Planning Commission is Dec. 20 at 5:30 p.m.