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EDA addresses Obici site

City Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes spent much of Wednesday’s Economic Development Authority meeting addressing the concerns of residents regarding the development of the former Obici Hospital site.

The city hopes to see a mixed-use development there, and the EDA already has entered into a contract to sell 14 acres — about half the site — to Waverton Associates for a 224-apartment complex.

But support for a park on the site has gained traction among local residents. At a community meeting last month, they turned out in force to lobby for the idea.

In Wednesday’s meeting, Hughes reiterated that nearby Lake Meade Park includes a walking trail, 10 tennis courts, a playground and many other amenities. They also are in the process of looking into access to the Nansemond River at the site, he said.

Water access would be a challenge on the old Obici site, Hughes said, because of a drop-off and marshy, wooded area at the back of the site.

“I’d call it a conundrum at this point,” Hughes said of water access.

Responding to concerns about traffic and turning ability in front of the site, Hughes said any commercial development there likely would require to the same improvements.

An updated rough estimate of the economic impact of the development puts it at about $466,000 for real estate and sales taxes, Hughes added. Meanwhile, the site currently costs the EDA about $13,000 a year to cut the grass.

Hughes said Waverton’s research has shown similar developments in the area have about a 2 to 6 percent vacancy rate, which is considered low. That “means there’s room for other players in the market,” Hughes said. About 18 school-age children are estimated to live at the site once apartments are developed.

Hughes also noted that the city could, with no further action from City Council, place a “big-box” store on the site.

“We know that there’s interest,” he said, apparently referring to a 2013 purchase offer by Kroger to put one of its Marketplace stores on the site. The city did not take Kroger up on the offer.

To those who say the city should honor the contributions of Planters Peanuts founder, hospital builder and Suffolk benefactor Amedeo Obici, Hughes listed about 10 sites around the city that honor him and his legacy, including street names, the Planters factory, the Planters Club, Obici House, Character Corner, the Obici Healthcare Foundation and, of course, the hospital that continues to bear his name even though it has moved to a different site and merged with Sentara.

The new development would be called Obici Place, Hughes added.

“The name would live on in the site,” he said. “It would not disappear.”

Speaking after the meeting, park supporters Geoff and Stella Payne dismissed Hughes’ claims.

“It’s just misinformation to get everybody to acquiesce,” Geoff Payne said. “It’s a done deal.”

Stella Payne noted North Main Street currently does not have a passing level of service and said development of the site could limit options for the Virginia Department of Transportation site next door, which the city is also eyeing.

“That is the land they really want,” she said. “Every great town, city has its open space.”

After the EDA’s regular meeting, it discussed the Obici property in closed session but took no action on it.

If all goes as planned, the issue will be considered at the Planning Commission meeting on March 17.