Park supporters apply for grant

Published 7:43 pm Saturday, May 16, 2015

Supporters of a park on the site of the old Obici Hospital have applied for a grant to help pay for a study on the benefits of green space on the site.

The grant, if received from the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Urban and Community Forestry Grant program, would be combined with private donations to pay for the study to be done by consultants from the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

“I would hope that the councilmen will see fit to at least delay (a vote) for this group of citizens to offer this to them,” said Joyce Trump, who supports green space on the site.

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A public hearing regarding the site is set for this week’s City Council meeting, which takes place Wednesday at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers, 442 W. Washington St.

The proposal would rezone the 27.5-acre site to mixed-use development from its current commercial zoning, making way for apartments and shops. The Economic Development Authority, which owns the property, is under contract to sell the back half of the site to Waverton Associates for a 224-apartment complex.

The city bought the site at 1900 N. Main St. in 2005 for $4.5 million. It has sat vacant for more than a decade after the hospital moved its operations to the current site on Godwin Boulevard and razed the old building.

Several attempts to sell and develop the property have fallen through, including one by Robinson Development, which bought it in 2006. After failing to get a theater operator to anchor the mixed-use site, the group sold the site back to the city in 2008.

Advocates for green space say a professional study could examine the multi-faceted benefits of green space — to the economy, tourism, health of local citizens, water quality and more. Monette Harrell, who has been at the forefront of the charge for green space, says part of the study would include developing sustainable connections — perhaps a boardwalk — to other local venues, like the Hilton Garden Inn.

“You’d finally be able to see the Nansemond River for the first time,” said Byron Carmean, who also supports green space on the site.

The economic benefits of green space are many, Carmean says.

“Real estate values increase around green space,” he said. “People pay more for homes that are near green space.”

Quoting a study by John Crompton of Texas A&M University on the benefits of green space, Carmean continues: “You have to subsidize housing by 15 percent,” once you provide utilities, hire additional city staff to serve the citizens who are living there, educate the children who are living there, and so on.

“Some of the councilmen actually think (the mixed-use development) is the best financial option,” Carmean said.

His wife, Jean Carmean, expounded upon the tourism benefits.

“Suffolk is so rich,” she said. “It’s the Mecca. We’ve got everything tourists are looking for. (Green space) will continue to bring in revenue year after year.”

Trump said she believes the Obici site is “the right place to do something for the future of the city.”

“This won’t come again,” she said. “The opportunity is singular.”

She added later that the proponents of green space aren’t simply opposing apartments and retail outlets — they’re providing an alternative.

“It’s fairly easy to oppose something,” she said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ We’re saying, ‘We have something we want you to look at.’”

Harrell said she believes the more than 2,000 citizens who have signed petitions advocating green space on the site want to be heard.

She also wants City Council members to know this: “It’s OK for city leaders to change their minds as information becomes available to them,” she said.