Park would require an about face

Published 8:46 pm Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Supporters of a riverfront park on the old Obici Hospital property, no matter the merit of what they suggest, are about a decade late to the conversation. Whether the idea gets traction rests solely with the City Council, not the Economic Development Authority, which is simply doing the job it was assigned.

If the city’s economic developers seemed blindsided by the opposition of park proponents, it’s understandable. Commercial development of the North Main Street property has been the city’s obvious intent since the hospital was demolished in 2003, freeing 28 acres of prime property for alternative use. The city even sold it to a developer in 2006 before reacquiring it two years later when the real estate economy tanked and the developer got cold feet. Transferring ownership to the EDA in 2013 was another public statement of the city’s intentions for the property.

The EDA is a legitimate target for those who question whether an apartment complex is a wise method of commercial development for the property. But those, such as park supporters, who are opposed to commercial use altogether are barking up the wrong tree by going after the EDA.

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Their efforts need to be squarely focused on the City Council, which has a different makeup from prior councils that envisioned the property as an economic engine and contributor to the city’s tax rolls. Power in this matter rests entirely with the council, which would have to rezone the property in order for the proposed apartments to be built. Or the council could give park proponents an even bigger victory by taking the land back from the EDA and taking commercial development off the table.

Ideally, the city’s Planning Commission would be a good body for vetting all options, but citizens were reminded anew of that entity’s impotence last fall, when a lame-duck council ignored planners’ advice, broke a prior promise to citizens, and blessed an apartment development on congested Bridge Road.

The Planning Commission will go through the motions again on the Obici property, but park supporters hoping to make up a decade of lost ground must persuade at least four and preferably five council members.

Mayor Linda Johnson and Councilmen Curtis Milteer, Mike Duman, Roger Fawcett and Lue Ward favored commercial development as recently as two years ago when they voted to transfer the property to the EDA for the purpose of marketing it to private interests. Park supporters would have to flip one or two votes on that list and get the unanimous support of council newcomers Leroy Bennett, Don Goldberg and Tim Johnson. (Of note, Goldberg is one who has made his living in commercial real estate and economic development.)

That’s a lot of persuading to do over the next few months. The park would have stood a better chance a dozen years ago, when the last brick tumbled on Obici Hospital.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is