A weak excuse on Obici property

Published 9:55 pm Thursday, March 12, 2015

There was, at least, something different on Wednesday about how the Suffolk Economic Development Authority handled citizens’ pleas for consideration of the vacant site of the former Louise Obici Memorial Hospital as the possible location of a new park.

At least this time, an agency operating on behalf of and with authority from the city government felt compelled to come up with an excuse for plunging along with its own plans and ignoring the pleas of citizens.

It seems a pretty hollow excuse, but when Suffolk Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes asserted that city officials had learned the property doesn’t quite extend to the banks of the adjacent Nansemond River — thus obviating one of the prime reasons a group of citizens has suggested building a park there — he gave the Authority the cover it wanted for continuing on with its plan to sell much of the site to a developer who would build 224 apartments there.

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Hughes told the Authority that a thin strip of land between the old hospital site and the river belongs on one end to the Virginia Department of Transportation and on the other end to residential owners in the Riverwood Trace cul-de-sac.

The revelation seemed calculated to suggest that even if the city were to drop out of its contract with the developers and consider the residents’ suggestion that a park be built on the long-vacant property, that park would not have the river access its supporters say they lack in the downtown area.

But the distinction is just a bit too cute for comfort, because concurrent to its negotiations with the apartments developer the city is also working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to buy the North Main Street complex that agency inhabits and relocate VDOT somewhere else in Hampton Roads. Toward that end, VDOT has published a request for information from developers and municipalities about other potential sites. In fact, Suffolk officials have considered responding to that request by suggesting other potential VDOT sites within the city’s boundaries.

And even if VDOT never moves, why would the small strip of land be untouchable? Couldn’t the city make VDOT and the other owners an offer for it? And since the land would be used for a public park, it’s likely an eminent domain action would prevail, meaning the city could simply take it and pay the owners market value. In short, if Suffolk wanted the property, the city could easily get it.

So implying that the park project is hindered by lack of water access might be technically and temporarily true, but it’s a pretty poor excuse for ignoring a groundswell of opinion about the property. And this flimsy excuse will give City Council very little political cover if it accedes to the Economic Development Authority’s plan by granting the zoning approval the developer would need to build the apartments.

Whether city officials want a park on the site or not, the people who have invested such time and passion into the idea deserve something more than weak excuses for the decision.