More than two choices on Obici

Published 9:07 pm Monday, June 1, 2015

By making the decision about what to do with the former site of the Louise Obici Memorial Hospital a choice between a proposed 224-unit apartment complex and a park, both city officials and park advocates have done a disservice to the property and to the citizens of Suffolk.

With the city’s limited objective information about potential uses for the property, any binary set of options for the property would be unnecessarily limiting. But that’s just the way the debate has been cast by members of City Council and — to their detriment — by those who would prefer to see some sort of park occupy the space.

What’s wrong with locating 224 apartments and a new strip mall on the Obici property is not that the site should house a new park. What’s wrong with the proposal put forward by Waverton Associates and awaiting likely approval by City Council on Wednesday is that the apartments and strip mall are very possibly the worst choices for the site, considering the potential impact on schools and traffic in the area.

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What’s right for the property? Nobody really knows. There’s been no objective market study to guide city planners — the only one that exists for the site was done by a city contractor with a vested interest in the site becoming what the EDA has proposed — and the Economic Development Authority, to which City Council deeded the property with a clear mandate to sell it to a developer, has only ever sought to ensure it’s sold at a profit.

A group of citizens has done an admirable bit of grassroots campaigning on behalf of the park concept, but concentrating on that alternative has left the group open to some legitimate criticism. Why wasn’t the park idea put forward during the years the property sat vacant? Why would the city build one park across the street from another? Why should the city give up the potential tax revenue that could be earned from the property?

Unfortunately, focusing all of the public debate on the park as the only option on the table also plays right into the hands of the developer. Once the park idea is almost inevitably dismissed by City Council, the apartments project becomes the only option remaining in the public discourse.

Better would have been a campaign to simply halt the apartments project in favor of a study to determine the highest and best use for the Obici property, without pre-judging what the results of that study should be. City Council members who argued against such a study would have seemed to align themselves with developers, rather than citizens. A case for prudence would have been much easier to make than a case for another park.

That case is still possible, and park proponents have been making it privately during the past week and a half or so, since City Council briefly postponed a vote on the apartments rezoning. Leaders of the citizen effort say they have hope their arguments have swayed support on the elected body. Whether that’s true or not will be clear on Wednesday.

But what’s clear already is that couching this debate as a binary proposition has been a disservice to everyone except the developer pushing apartments.