Obici vote put off
Published 11:02 pm Wednesday, May 20, 2015
City Council on Wednesday voted narrowly to table for two weeks a rezoning proposal that would clear the way for apartments and retail space on the old Louise Obici Memorial Hospital property at 1900 N. Main St.
The public hearing included 14 citizens who favor green space, rather than development, on the site and asked the council to vote for a four- to six-month delay to give them time to do a study on the benefits of a park.
It also heard from one citizen who favors the mixed-use development, as well as Kevin Hughes of the Department of Economic Development, representing the Economic Development Authority, which owns the property. The developer and a consultant also spoke in favor of the project.
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“Location matters,” Hughes said. “A site adjacent to a car lot and the Virginia Department of Transportation with no ownership for water access is not a park site,” Hughes said.
About half of the 27.5-acre site is under contract to Waverton Associates, which plans to build 224 apartments there in nine four-story buildings, said John P. Wright, president and chief executive officer of Waverton.
But scores of Suffolk citizens who turned out on Wednesday want to see a park on the site. They also worry about traffic safety, school capacity, property values and more.
Nearby resident Larry Felton said houses in his neighborhood are already selling below their assessed values.
“We don’t have to wait until this project is completed to determine the impact on our community,” he said. “We already know. It’s already taking its toll on our community.”
Many people who live in neighborhoods across the street from the property have been living there for dozens of years, like Sarah Massey.
“You’re throwing all of us right in the ditch so that you can offer apartment living to transient residents who give very little to the city,” she said.
“You are going to trash a very unique situation,” said Allen Clements, who added he and his wife left North Suffolk because they were tired of the development. “We were so glad to get out of there.”
Even Cindy Ferguson, a former Economic Development Authority member who voted for the project during her time on the authority, stood up in favor of the green space.
“Today, with more information coming forth, I would have to step back and vote no,” she said. “I don’t want future generations to say, ‘What were they thinking?’”
But the developers, Hughes and some City Council members downplayed the concerns of citizens.
“I’m afraid that when and if a park study comes back, it will tell you the city has sufficient green and open space,” Wright said.
He also told the City Council he is pressed for time — a financing agreement has to be signed and returned by June 15, and building code changes effective July 15 would add about $1.8 million to the project’s cost, he said.
Councilman Mike Duman spoke about high taxes and water bills and suggested the development could help alleviate those situations.
“What’s going to keep our water bills from escalating is more of what they call ERU’s — people using it,” Duman said. Pointing to a recent tax increase, he said, “That burden should not be placed on the remainder of the citizens of Suffolk.”
Duman proposed a two-week delay to get answers to some questions, including reassurances on the quality of the apartments.
That motion eventually passed 4-3, but not before other council members had their say.
“I cannot vote in favor of this development,” Councilman Tim Johnson said, criticizing the economic development department for not thinking of it earlier. “This park should have been out there years and years and years ago.”
Councilman Curtis Milteer said he supports the mixed-use development. So did Councilman Lue Ward, who seconded Duman’s motion.
“I think that our EDA department already did that study,” Ward said.
Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, who initially proposed a three-month delay, joined Tim Johnson in voting against Duman’s motion, as did Councilman Donald Goldberg.
“I don’t have a problem with apartments; I have a problem with the location of the apartments,” Goldberg said.
Councilman Roger Fawcett abstained from the discussion and vote, citing business and personal relationships with Waverton Associates.
The matter will be heard again June 3.