A waste of everyone’s time

Published 11:22 pm Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wednesday’s meeting of the Suffolk City Council presented an opportunity for that group to prove to citizens that it’s responsive to their concerns, willing to listen and able to pass up the quick payoff in favor of taking the long view.

Unfortunately the Old Guard members chose, instead, to disregard the cry of their constituents, ignore commonsense arguments and prepare to pursue the instant gratification of a relationship with a developer instead of giving real consideration to what might be best for the city in the long run.

Voting 4-3, council decided to postpone for two weeks a vote on rezoning the site of the former Louise Obici Memorial Hospital. But that delay should not be interpreted as anything but window dressing around a decision that effectively has already been made. The postponement ostensibly is a chance for council members to receive assurances about the quality of apartments and retail outlets planned by Waverton Associates and for confirmation that traffic flow along the North Main Street corridor will not be adversely affected by the development.

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But there’s little chance Waverton will come back with any different answer to the former question than it has given all along. Company officials surely won’t stand before City Council and say the apartments will be low-quality structures attracting transient tenants who contribute little to Suffolk’s economy. And the city’s planning department has already weighed in on the traffic matter, telling city officials there’s no need to worry, though residents of that area have found it hard to accept the premise that putting 300 to 500 more vehicles a day on the already-overtaxed road will have an unexceptionable effect on traffic flow.

What’s the rush? That’s what folks wanted to know during Wednesday’s public hearing. The answer? 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, Waverton President and CEO John P. Wright told council.

Suffolk’s Economic Development Authority, which owns the property, has Waverton on the hook as a buyer, and city officials are afraid of losing that buyer if the process is delayed long enough to perform a proper study to identify a use for the 27.5-acre site that would be unique and serve to attract people to historic Suffolk.

Such a concern would be reasonable if Suffolk were in a position of weakness in regards to the Obici property. But the city’s hand will only get stronger the longer it holds onto it. With the adjacent, huge Virginia Department of Transportation site set to come into the city’s possession when VDOT decamps to another location, the possibilities for the combined property are exhilarating.

College campus? Amphitheater? Town center-type development? Entertainment complex? Maybe even the riverside park that so many citizens have clamored for in recent months? All would be potential and attractive options at that point. But none are as likely with the conversion of the Obici parcel to apartments.

Suffolk citizens would have been better served on Wednesday if City Council had just proceeded with the vote to approve the rezoning on the spot instead of engaging in the empty theatrics of a pointless postponement. The Old Guard is clearly not interested in considering the truly important questions. Pretending to care about questions that already have been answered is a waste of everyone’s time.