The Mize Farm & Garden property would be included in the apartment complex development planned for the former General Mills property in the background. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
A zoning variance request for the Walnut Street Model Mills property has been removed from today’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting agenda, but not because the sale of the property fell through, Chamber of Commerce Director Gary Mabrey said Monday.
Mabrey said the potential developer, Evolve Development LLC, asked that the hearing be postponed to December’s BZA meeting to allow a fifth 40-unit apartment building to be added to the site plans on the adjoining Mize Farm & Garden Supply property.
“One change being made to the plans is how they’re going to use the Mize property, the original plan did not show how it would be used,” Mabrey said. “Right now, I think it’s going to be five apartment buildings instead of four, and they’re going to set aside the remaining part of the Mize property for commercial or retail space.”
Building the 200 apartments would require Evolve to raze the century-old flour mill and the farm store and build what Mabrey said would be a $20 million investment on the six acres.
“Getting something on that piece of property is what we have strived for the last 66 months,” Mabrey said. “This is the best deal that we have going.”
Some nearby residents, however, are asking for more information about the proposed development and criticizing the hurried process to get the plan approved.
A called meeting last week with Mabrey and Evolve representative Scott Austin drew a heavy turnout from the Tree Streets neighborhood, and left some looking for more answers.
“We had some concerns about the way the mill had been handled,” resident Amber Lee said Monday. “We were told this would be a rehab and renovation and that it would be developed as a commercial property.
“Basically, the chamber told us they had done everything they possibly could, and no developers could make it work,” Lee continued. “They said if the developer didn’t get this variance, and in this time frame, it was off the table, they were going home. That’s why some of us think perhaps we should look at it a little more closely.” Lee said no one she knows of in the Tree Streets is opposed to developing the aging mill property.
The vacant industrial site is a prominent eyesore on the Walnut Street corridor, and has been a target for graffiti and a safety hazard for years.
But Lee said by granting the zoning variance, which would allow Evolve to build and manage residential units on the first floor of any structures instead of commercial space, the city could change the character of the street and affect future development plans.
“It’s zoned for commercial, it’s in a commercial district, we would like some commercial development,” she said. “The Chamber of Commerce should support that. As a small biz owner, I have been looking for appropriate office space, and having a hard time finding it. This could be a great spot for anybody looking for something similar.”
Mabrey said in the five years the chamber organization has owned and been actively marketing the property, the residential proposal is the most promising, and delaying the project could spoil the deal.
Mabrey did say that, although Evolve builds and manages both student housing and multi-family apartment buildings, the complex on Walnut will not be for students only.
“There isn’t any question as to what this is,” he said. “It’s multifamily housing. Multi-family is what makes sense for that property.”
Lee graciously said she, and other concerned residents, received timely responses when emailing and calling Mabrey with their questions.
“I thoroughly appreciate him being receptive to answering our questions,” she said. “I definitely want the conversation to continue, and I would like to continue that with him in a time frame to get those questions answered and distributed to the neighborhood, so that everybody feels comfortable with this project.”
The Evolve project is tentatively scheduled for a variance request hearing at the Dec. 10 BZA meeting.
A meeting hosted by the Southside Neighborhood Organization, but open to the public, is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 18 at the Holston Methodist Conference Center to discuss the development.