Planners OK Obici plan

Published 10:13 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scores of supporters of a park at the old Obici Hospital site packed Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, where a public hearing was held on a proposed mixed-use development on the site.

The park supporters didn’t get the result they hoped for, though. A motion to recommend approval of a development that would include apartments, retail and office space passed on a 5-3 vote.

Undeterred, park supporters said they will simply carry their passion to City Council next month.

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“We will make the same argument and hope the outcome is different,” Doug Naismith said after the public hearing.

Seven opponents of the mixed-use development spoke during the hearing for the 27-acre site, which is located at 1900 N. Main St. They spoke about congested traffic on the road, rare trees on the site, the benefits of a park and, most of all, what they see as a need to temper perceived haste in the treatment of the site.

“Suffolk has just one chance to get this right,” Naismith said during the public hearing. “We cannot afford to make a decision we may later regret.”

Bradford Andrews agreed.

“If those apartments go up, it’s irrevocable,” he said. “Nobody’s going to tear down 224 apartments to turn it back into a park at some point in the future.”

The city purchased the site in 2005 after the hospital moved its operations to its current Godwin Boulevard location. The Economic Development Authority now owns the property.

In addition to the 224 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of office and commercial space and 52,500 square feet of retail space are proposed.

“It will add high-end rental housing to an area that desperately needs it,” Economic Development Director Kevin Hughes said. “It will keep more shopping power in Suffolk.”

The city proposes to realign the development’s main entrance with Northgate Lane, a residential street on the west side of North Main Street. Other traffic changes would include a raised median with dedicated left turn lanes rather than the current shared left turn lane, which Public Works Director Eric Nielsen said is needed with or without the proposed development.

“This road was not built with the intention of keeping the two-way left turn lanes with the traffic volumes we’re seeing today,” Nielsen said.

The city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan shows North Main Street at a Level of Service E, almost a failing grade. Park supporter Geoff Payne, however, believes it meets the Virginia Department of Transportation’s criteria for a failing grade, which is given to roadways “characterized by stop-and-go waves, poor travel times, low comfort and convenience, and increased accident exposure.”

Payne called commissioners’ attention to the fact that residents of several streets across from the development will no longer be able to make left turns onto North Main Street if the median is constructed.

The commissioners who signaled their views with their comments before the vote were split.

“What about the quality of access that people will have?” Thomas Savage said. “What price is that worth to the city to have properties that suffer a loss in value? Is it fair to those people?”
James R. “Ronnie” Rountree was on the other side.

“I think it will be a beautiful site for a park,” Rountree said. But then he wondered where park supporters were 10 years ago when the city purchased the property. It may have been a different story then, he said, but now the city has other needs like paying teachers.

He made a motion, seconded by Arthur Singleton, to recommend approval. However, it was immediately substituted by William “Stan” Perry, who made a motion to table it for 90 days.

“I think, at this point, we should not be too hasty,” Perry said. He was seconded by Savage.

Perry mentioned forming a committee to investigate the merits of a park, but City Attorney Helivi Holland said she did not believe the Planning Commission had the authority to appoint a committee of citizens, though members can always receive information from any citizen.

The motion to table failed on a tied vote, with William Goodman and James Vacalis joining Perry and Savage to vote yes and Howard Benton, Johnnie Edwards III, Rountree and Singleton voting no.

The vote then moved to Rountree’s original motion to recommend approval. Goodman, Perry and Savage voted no.

Monette Harrell, who helped lead the charge for a park, was at the hearing despite her husband’s death last week.

“I had to come for Bobby, who had such a passion for this,” she said, noting that the physical activity a park provides can help prevent diseases like diabetes. “Mr. Obici gave us a wonderful hospital to take care of sick people. Now we have an opportunity to focus on prevention, to keep people from getting sick.”