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Michelle Cormier Lee discusses the development plans

Michelle Cormier Lee, leaning on the backyard gate of her house on Avenue F, talks about the residential development taking shape across the alley from her home.

Neighbors of a proposed residential development on the 1600 block of Avenue E fear that the project will disrupt their lives and lower the value of their property.

"Just the idea that a project of this magnitude can take place and the neighbors have no input — that's the most frustrating part," Michelle Cormier Lee said.

Lee and her husband, Rod, live at 1616 Avenue F, just across the alley from a project that would put two four-plexes and four six-plexes on the north side of Avenue E between 16th and 17th streets west.

What concerns them most are plans to widen — to 20 feet — and pave the alley and use it for primary access to 18 of the dwelling units.

They fear noise, a loss of privacy, lights and heavy traffic, all of which they say will make their own property less valuable.

"I definitely understand their frustrations," said Travis McDowell of AT Architecture, the agent for the property owner, Greg McDonald of McDonald Land Holdings. But he insists that his firm and McDonald are trying to accommodate the interests of the neighborhood.

He said McDonald could have replaced the 10 duplexes on the property with 12 duplexes, with primary access from the alley to some of the units, without needing City Council approval of their plans.

As it is, because they are proposing to build four- and six-plexes, they must obtain a special review, which will be voted on by the City Council on Tuesday night because of the Memorial Day holiday.

Also, McDowell said, the roof lines will be no higher than 24 feet, 10 feet lower than they were allowed to go, and they are building 32 units, as opposed to the maximum of 40.

"We're keeping this a low-profile project. ... We are thinking of the neighbors," he said.

That's not the way Lee sees it. She wrote a letter, signed by 10 of her neighbors, to the City Zoning Commission, saying the planned development is "unnecessary, damaging of property values, and destructive of our way of life."

When the Zoning Commission met on May 7, however, it voted 4-1 to recommend that the City Council approve the special review, with 14 conditions imposed on the developer.

Lee subsequently sent a five-page letter to the council, outlining nine more conditions that would make the development acceptable to the neighbors.

McDonald Land Holdings has already demolished the Plaza Pool Apartments, which the old duplexes were called. Representatives of the company said the new development will be much more attractive than the Plaza Pool Apartments, which were built in 1965 and were run down to the point of becoming a hazard.

Lee, however, said that was hardly an argument for building new apartments, since McDonald Land Holdings owned the old ones and had them managed by Rainbow Property Management, which will continue to manage the new buildings.

She wondered what would prevent the new buildings from falling into the same kind of disrepair.

Higher rents, for one thing, McDowell said — ranging from $900 to $1,200 a month, compared with $650 a month for the previous apartments.

"These are going to be a lot higher-end units, so we won't have the same kind of tenants," he said.

Regardless of the condition of the Plaza Pool Apartments, Lee said, at least the old property was lined with trees at the alley, and there were large back yards furthering buffering the neighbors from the duplexes.

The trees have already been taken out and the neighbors will now face a nearby row of apartments and garages, and a paved, two-way alley.

"Essentially, my house will be sandwiched between two city streets," Lee said.

McDowell said McDonald has agreed to put speed bumps in the alley and to build new privacy fences for all neighbors on the north side of the alley who want one. That stipulation was suggested by the Zoning Commission but was taken out at the request of the developer, who is now volunteering to build the fences, McDowell said.

Ward 3 City Councilwoman Becky Bird, who represents that neighborhood, said she is still gathering information on the development and doesn't know yet what could be done to ease the neighbors' concerns.

"These are the toughest issues," she said. "We're talking about changing the culture of the neighborhood."

Rich McFadden, the other Ward 3 representative on the council, said he, too, sympathized with the neighbors.

"It should remain an alley, and I don't believe their front doors should face the alley," he said of the new apartments. "We should limit the encroachment on the neighbors' backyards."

McFadden and Bird both mentioned the recent negotiations between FedEx Ground and the business owners bordering FedEx's recently acquired West End property. After a protracted, public feud over FedEx's developments plans, the company revamped them to alleviate the concerns of their neighbors. 

"I think they should take a cue from FedEx and be a good neighbor," McFadden said. 

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I cover the city of Billings.