When Ocie Vest went before the San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission in December with a plan to develop about 192 acres of land near Yarrington Road and I-35 for apartments and retail, he was not looking to initiate a complete rewrite of the city's apartment development policies. But that is what he got.

"We want to see high-quality development [on the tract]," Vest, a vice president with Dallas-based development company Stratford Lane, told the commission in December. "If you believe those [multifamily standards] need to be strengthened, I don't know if we would disagree with you."

Since that December meeting, the city's planning staff has been gathering input and proposing updates to the standards that apply to multifamily developments. An initial draft of the revisions is expected to be presented to P&Z on May 27.

"[The commission was] very concerned that even though the [Yarrington] development was where the comprehensive plan said it should be, the type of development that could go there—at our gateway, really visible on I-35, near a really up and coming single-family neighborhood—was a big concern because of the [developments] that have been built," Planning Manager John Foreman said.

The proposed standards will focus on problematic areas of development identified by City Council, P&Z and residents. Those include building and site design; building materials; vehicular, cyclist and pedestrian access and parking.

Matt Lewis, director of planning and development services, said the standards also aim to integrate apartment complexes into the surrounding community.

In some cases, apartments have been built near single-family homes with mixed results, he said.

Mill Street, a historic area that also includes apartments, is a good example of how building a multifamily development on a large piece of land with only a few entrance points can affect compatibility, Foreman said.

"You have this great little grid network of a historic area, and it just falls apart at Mill Street where you have these huge, gigantic new complexes that are 20 or 40 acres of apartments," Foreman said.

Instead of 40-acre complexes with two or three entrances points, the proposed standards call for complexes broken up by "street-like private drives," Foreman said. The move aims to create a grid network within complexes to mimic the block sizes in single-family neighborhoods.

Open house

John Noell, a partner with the Austin-based development company Urban Design Group, attended an open house the city held April 30 to review the standards and gather citizen input.

Noell, an Austin resident, said he generally believes the proposed standards will improve developments in the city, but any changes should allow for flexibility.

"There's no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all for this," Noell said. "Good design addresses the components that they're talking about here, but it also addresses how they can work best on an individual site."

Noell said proposed regulations regarding building design and materials are concerning. Among other things, the new standards call for the use of masonry—stone, brick and stucco—on new multifamily developments. Those materials are typically more costly than fiberboard and other alternatives.

By requiring higher quality building materials, the city is aiming to ensure the complexes maintain their value over time, Foreman said.

Planning department staffers are also considering requiring developers looking to build student housing to obtain a conditional-use permit, which would have to be approved by P&Z and City Council before the development could move forward.

San Marcos resident Melissa Derrick attended the April 30 open house and said the proposal would help ensure multifamily developments are built in ways that are compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

"The one issue we have with [the current process] is that if the developer is not bound to a planned development district, we have no way to put any conditions on the zoning," Derrick said. "The conditional-use permit will allow us to ask for conditions. I think that's a huge improvement."

Multifamily developments

According to data from Austin Investor Interests, a company that tracks real estate trends, San Marcos' total occupancy for multifamily developments was 94.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

The 1,140 three-bedroom apartments in San Marcos rent for an average of $1,718 per month, according to the firm. Those prices have remained generally unchanged since 2008, but Noell said any additional costs to developers will probably be passed on to the complex's tenants.

"These [new standards] are going to increase the cost of housing," Noell said. "How much that is is a matter for someone to sit down and analyze. The cumulative effect is that it will cost more to live in apartments in San Marcos [when these standards are in place] than it did before."

Rent by the bedroom

Apartments in the city are typically rented by the bedroom. The advantage to the property management company in leasing individual bedrooms is it typically allows for higher rent charges than paying by the unit, Foreman said. The practice can be cost-prohibitive for families interested in apartments.

"If you're renting [an apartment] by the bedroom and you rent a three-bedroom and you're paying $500 or $600 for each bedroom, the cost is exponential," he said. "It's not a ban, but [the cost] makes it pretty difficult [for single families]."

Some residents have voiced a desire to see more apartments or condos geared toward families and non-students. Derrick said the city needs more variety in its housing options.

"I would like to see the downtown area cater also to young professionals and not just the student population," Derrick said. "I think there needs to be a mix downtown."

The city will continue gathering feedback from residents ahead of a P&Z meeting May 27, at which the standards are to be discussed. After P&Z gives input, the standards will go to City Council for a vote.