Obici: Take time to get it right

Published 10:35 pm Saturday, February 14, 2015

If there’s one thing just about everyone can agree upon regarding the North Main Street property where Louise Obici Memorial Hospital once stood, it is this: There must be a better purpose for it than to sit empty and forlorn, as it does today.

The site’s location near the edge of the growing North Main commercial corridor gives it an undeniable potential and an unavoidable significance to the development efforts of city planners. Its location, size and potential also make the property one of the most enticing and intriguing properties left for development in historic Suffolk.

In fact, one of the only things that kept the site vacant since the old hospital was demolished was the real estate market crash and its subsequent slow recovery. But with real estate rebounding and development taking off once again in Suffolk, the Obici property is once again an appealing prospect for developers with big plans and deep pockets.

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Suffolk’s Economic Development Authority, which owns the property, has been eager to find a buyer that will develop the site and put it back on the tax rolls, and the authority has found a willing partner in Waverton Associates, which wants to buy half the site — about 14 acres — to build a 224-apartment complex there.

But there are serious questions about whether an apartment complex is an appropriate use of the land. Traffic problems along North Main Street are already the bane of anyone trying to get from the downtown area to Godwin Boulevard or vice versa on any given weekday. Adding the traffic from a huge apartment complex to the mix will only make matters worse. And adding the children such a complex would house to an already-overcrowded set of schools is a step that should be taken with only the utmost care.

A group of interested residents has come together to try to convince the city to shun the offer from Waverton and turn the property into a city park. It’s an interesting proposal and one that merits consideration, as the site is located along the banks of the Nansemond River, and downtown-area residents currently have little or no easy access to that resource.

Proponents of the park idea make a good point about the nearby Lake Meade Park, noting that it’s nearly hidden behind the Farm Fresh supermarket on North Main Street. There are likely many residents of historic Suffolk who do not even know that park exists. A new park fronting on the road would likely be used by far more people.

Whether Suffolk needs two parks so close together is a reasonable question, and reasonable people can also wonder why the park idea is only now coming into vogue, considering the site has been a topic of development discussions for more than a decade.

Suffolk officials have a tough call on the Obici property. Fortunately for them, the site is going nowhere, it hasn’t produced taxable income in generations and its value to developers and residents will only continue to rise. There’s no reason to rush into a relationship with the first suitor to come along, and there’s also no need to build a park that’s not just the right kind of facility for historic Suffolk.

City officials should take their time and be certain that whatever development — or whatever park — is planned for the Obici site is worthy of its great potential.