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If a five-story building is to be approved for the Village of East Davenport, it will require court action.

Davenport's Zoning Board of Adjustment, or ZBA, on Thursday rejected a request for a "hardship variance" from businessman Gregg Ontiveros for the five-story, 48-unit apartment building. He owns the oddly shaped parcel along River Drive, between Mound Street and the railroad truss to the west, and has proposed a 60-foot tall building with retail on the first floor.

Ontiveros has spent nearly a decade trying to come up with a development plan for the site. But the high cost of building on the former sawmill property pushed his plans higher. To make a "reasonable rate of return," he said, the ZBA would have to grant a variance and waive the three-story height restriction for the Village.

After an hour of presentations, public comment and discussion, board members voted 3-1 against the variance. Their chief objection was that Ontiveros did not provide sufficient evidence that a five-story building is necessary for the project to yield a "reasonable rate of return."

The City Council chamber was a near full-house for Thursday's hearing, and a solid two-thirds of those in attendance stood in support of the project. City planners, however, did not endorse it.

Planner Matt Flynn said Ontiveros had not produced evidence of a hardship, including specific financial demands. He recommended the ZBA deny the variance request.

But Ontiveros' attorney, architect, contractor and engineer said the cost of developing the property is especially high, because contractors would have to dig 34 feet to reach bedrock. After that, as much as $1 million in pilings alone would be required, just to ensure the structure is built on solid ground.

"We can't make this go, financially, without the five stories," attorney Greg Jager concluded. He said "catastrophic" foundation issues in the one-story strip mall that previously occupied the Ontiveros property led to its demise.

Ontiveros arranged to buy the Southeast National Bank branch at Mound and River Drive "to spread the cost" of redeveloping the whole property into a profitable project, Jager said.

Among those objecting to the development were several of Ontiveros' neighbors on Mississippi Avenue. Nearly everyone who spoke against the project had nothing against the building, except its size.

Over the past two decades, taxpayers have invested in several studies of the Village of East Davenport, and each has concluded that a three-story limit be enforced.

Even so, Ontiveros made a final pitch for approval of what he warned is likely to be his last attempt to develop the site.

"I'm a lifelong resident. I've invested in the neighborhood," he said. "I give you my word you won't be disappointed in this project. All these people who have concerns, I won't let you down."

Even so, ZBA Chairwoman Cathy Hart emphasized that personal opinions of the project are irrelevant to board members. They are charged, first and foremost, with seeing to it that guidelines are met. Absent proof that a financial hardship would result from a smaller project, she voted it down. Board member Kerry Strayhall cast the only favorable vote.

After the meeting, Jager said he had not yet asked Ontiveros whether he wishes to appeal the ZBA vote to district court, which would be the next step. Although it is unlikely, he said, he also did not rule out an appeal.

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Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or