City to acquire old Obici property

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

After three months of closed-door meetings, Suffolk City Council voted Wednesday to purchase the former Obici Hospital site for $4.5 million.

Councilwoman Linda T. Johnson was the lone dissenter, insisting the city should not be in the business of purchasing property for development. She also expressed concern that the locality is taking a liberty not afforded to citizens.

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The city will now contract to purchase the 25 acres on North Main Street from Obici, and seek developers to transform the waterfront property into mixed uses, including housing and commercial opportunities.

City Manager R. Steve Herbert called the move an &uot;important economic development opportunity,&uot; which was necessary to control what occurs on one of Suffolk’s most prominent parcels.

Originally, Barton Ford moved forward to develop an expanded car dealership on the tract; however, those plans were abandoned last year as Obici addressed environmental issues.

The city anticipates putting RFPs (Requests for Proposals) out within the next three months, asking private developers to submit plans. To date, said Suffolk Economic Development Director Thomas O’Grady, there is

considerable interest in the site.

Currently, the land holds a B-2 zoning, which does not include mixed-use development.

Officials are

working to include a mixed-used category in its comprehensive growth document under revision.

Johnson accused the council of engaging in &uot;speculative&uot; rezoning, something traditionally forbidden for property owners in the city.

&uot;We need to make sure that the city is not doing what we don’t allow citizens to do,&uot; said Johnson. &uot;How can you have a plan if you don’t know what zoning it will be. What developer will put an RFP on property with no zoning? I just have a problem with this.&uot;

Councilman Curtis R. Milteer, though he later supported the purchase, agreed the issue was &uot;opening a can of worms&uot; and repeatedly asked City Attorney C. Edward Roettger for advice.

Roettger originally said he did not understand the concerns Johnson raised, and concluded there are no legal pitfalls.

But Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett

questioned whether council was moving too fast, considering Johnson’s concerns. Mayor Bobby L. Ralph contended that council had more than ample time to review all aspects of the deal-though Wednesday was the first public presentation.

&uot;There’s been nothing brought to our attention that we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss,&uot; said Ralph.

When questioned as to whether council had to approve the purchase Wednesday, Roettger said the contract was contingent upon their action at the meeting.

O’Grady said later in an interview that while the concept is new in Suffolk, the process of purchasing property to control future growth has been used consistently in other localities, such as Norfolk, Newport News and Hampton.

On a smaller scale, Suffolk hopes the development will mirror Newport News’ Port Warwick.

Ralph emphasized that the city has &uot;no interest&uot; in holding the Obici property.

&uot;We will have a say-so in how the property will be developed. That’s the sole intent,&uot; Ralph added, &uot;It will be developed by a private developer…to best serve the citizens of the city of Suffolk.&uot;

The $4.5 million will be paid in three installments at 4 percent interest, paying one-third of the cost as a down payment; another third at 12 months, and the balance

at 18 months.