Council pauses on the path to decision

Published 9:49 pm Friday, May 29, 2015

By John Carr

When faced with a controversial decision that will have consequences for decades to come, it is best to take time to deliberate.

City Council’s decision to delay voting on the rezoning of the former site of the Louise Obici Memorial Hospital was a brief reprieve for those advocating using the property as a park. Rezoning would have cleared the path for the apartment project to move forward.

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The delay gave opponents two weeks longer to gather information on the impact of the proposed apartments project and at least some information on the economic benefits of using the property for a new park. Two weeks might not be as much time as needed, but at least it provided a window of opportunity.

Council could have chosen to move ahead with the project and weather a shorter storm of public criticism, rather than drag out the process.

Park proponents have done a masterful job in capturing the imagination of the public. It is easy to picture a stroll in a riverfront park.

Given the chance, some city officials reel off a list of reasons they favor the apartment project:

Officials say the city would give up a million dollars a year in combined new expenses for park maintenance and losses in revenue from taxes and utility fees.

They also say that using the Obici property for a new park would be particularly difficult due to thousands of tons of concrete and asphalt that would need to be removed, along with possible ground contamination.

Those officials fear the Obici site could be so expensive to improve that it could sit empty for many more years before it could be funded. The alternative would be to push it to the front of the list of capital improvement projects, but that would delay other projects for years, instead.

They also state the parcel would not really accommodate the park many envision. The marsh would prevent deep-water access, and the tree line would prevent river views.

On the other hand, park proponents point out the economic benefits of a park could be substantial, too. Other communities with well-planned urban greenspaces have seen them become economic engines. The park could draw residents, visitors and investors, while creating jobs and offering a better quality of life.

Park supporters note that even if the Obici property is not ideal, it is historic Suffolk’s only option for a riverfront park. This could be Suffolk’s only chance to reclaim a piece of a riverfront that is otherwise lined with commercial properties, they say. And if the VDOT property next door becomes available, as many think it will, an even bigger vision could be entertained.

The problem for everyone is time. The park concept caught fire in recent months, and there has not been time for a proper planning process. No one knows for sure what the park would look like, what it would cost, or what the economic benefits could really be yielded here in Suffolk.

It would probably take months to put together a thorough study. Council gave park proponents just two weeks, but it easily could have ended the conversation completely. Instead, facing a June 15 contract deadline, they gave up something they don’t have much of — time.

Now, park advocates are faced with the tough job of convincing council members to vote for two in the bush, rather than the bird in hand.

John Carr is the publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9606 or at