Jodi Jones, president of Southside Neighborhood Organization, at the old General Mills property.(Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
North Carolina’s Evolve Development has pulled from the City Commission’s March 6 agenda its request for a third and final reading to rezone property off West Walnut Street for a $18.5 million apartment complex.
“Right now the indication is they want a two-week delay on the final vote,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said Wednesday. “There are some things Commissioner Jeff Banyas wanted in writing, and there are some things I’d like to see addressed as well. We’ll see how serious they are in a few weeks.”
Commissioners voted 3-2 last week on second reading to approve rezoning the property from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business) on which the developer plans to build a 216-unit apartment complex. But the close vote and the mayor’s comments reveal just how fine the balancing point is on this issue.
Van Brocklin, Banyas and Commissioner Jenny Brock voted for the rezoning on second reading, but Banyas remains concerned about the developer delivering a quality product that works in unison with the city’s downtown revitalization effort. Van Brocklin, who says his confidence in the project dropped slightly after last week’s public hearing, prefers the facility be used as it was first presented: by professionals with discretionary income.
Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita voted against the rezoning.
Organization in “brainstorming mode”
The company also has requested a review by the Board of Zoning Appeals scheduled for March 11 be reset at a later date. Should commissioners approve a third reading, Evolve still must run its rezoning request through the BZA, since land use is being changed. The BZA ultimately has the authority to grant or deny the developer’s request, and commissioners cannot overturn that decision.
Meanwhile, Johnson City residents and business owners opposed to the rezoning say they are stepping up their efforts to preventing what they see as an additional and unnecessary student housing complex.
“Absolutely,” Southside Neighborhood Organization President Jodi Jones said when asked if the group was still actively engaged in stopping the move. “One of our plans is to continue to look at the glut of student housing in this market. We’re also not sure the market analyses done by the developer last fall are not based on old data. The times have changed.”
Jones said the public hearing may have passed, but residents have not in any way ended efforts to halt a project they say will result in increased traffic and more noise and crime in the Tree Streets area.
“Our top goal is to prevent it,” Jones said. “We’re in a brainstorming mode. We’re trying to bring new facts to light and not just repeat what was said at the public hearing. We have a lot of eyes on us. Attorney Amber Floyd Lee, the organization’s liaison with the Johnson City Housing and Community Development Advisory Board, has continued to work hard looking at all angles.”
Jones said community organizations are supposed to be watchdogs and to some extent the group has impacted the way city commissioners view rezoning.
“I’d like to believe our efforts have helped commissioners consider more angles,” she said. “I think they are grateful for that. It involves a lot of research. I think we also impacted Evolve’s plan. They now have moved their parking where it can’t be seen from State of Franklin Road.”
Developing a reputation
Both zoning districts allow multi-family uses, but developments in the central business district rely only on street and on-site parking. This means the developer would need to secure parking to accommodate tenants, and the number that’s been tossed around is about 400.
“We don’t want to scare away development,” said Sam Preston, owner of Preston Woodworking, 620 W. Walnut St. “My business would be just feet from that development. Yes, it needs to be rezoned, but are we rezoning and throwing that whole property away for one developer with a bad reputation for changing what they say they’re going to do? Local attorney Howell Sherrod said at the public hearing that the longest-owned piece of property they’ve had is 18 months — so they build and sell.”
Scott Austin, who resides in Asheville were he runs Evolve’s Western North Carolina offices, could not be reached for comment.
Should the measure clear both the City Commission and BZA, the former Mennel Milling Co. and current Mize Farm & Garden sites will be demolished. The Johnson City/Washington County Area Chamber of Commerce owns the mill property and has shopped it around through the TCI Group for years with no success.
“People think the chamber is some kind of entity that owes a debt to the community,” said Amber Floyd Lee, who lives on Pine Street. “They don’t, they owe a duty to chamber members. I don’t want anyone to think we’re anti-student housing, because we’re not. But there are consequences to this process. We have non-students living in these complexes now. There’s no university oversight, and if a student drops out, they keep living there.”
Tom Seaton, Firehouse Restaurant owner and former chamber board chairman, spoke at the public hearing before the vote on behalf of a group of business owners on or near Walnut Street. Seaton reminded commissioners the developer had said the complex would cater to “high-end tenants” but changed plans and now is going to rent by the room.
Seaton was not immediately available for comment.
Commissioners weigh in
Van Brocklin told the Press that Seaton’s comments prompted a drop in his confidence level about the type of tenants who will end up living at the complex.
“Both the Southside Neighborhood Organization and the business groups have contacted me at church and by email -- most of them are people opposed to the rezoning,” he said. “The neighborhood group is actively seeking to change my vote.”
Though the largest public discussion may have passed at the public hearing, the mayor said he is waiting to hear from developer Scott Austin to see if he will “back off from marketing to students.”
“It’s not that I’m against student housing, but my preference would be that this facility be used as it was first presented -- by professionals with discretionary income,” he said. “I’m looking at what is going to help the Walnut Street corridor.”
Brock said Tuesday the neighborhood association has not lobbied her personally in an attempt to get her to change her vote.
“I’ve spoken with the organization’s president and others over time,” Brock said. “This is not a request to approve or disapprove a project. The way I look at it is we are reviewing and voting on a rezoning.”
Changing the property’s designation from B-2 to B-3 means tenants will not be left with the only option of parking on downtown streets and creating more problems, Brock added.
“I’m clear on what my job is as a commissioner,” she said. “I will stay focused on the rezoning.”
Banyas said several opponents of the rezoning have contacted him, but the number communicating to him that favor the move outweigh the naysayers.
“I’m still keeping an open mind, but based on what I’ve heard, I’ll continue to support it,” he said. Anything can happen, of course. And if I don’t feel 100-percent certain that we’re going to have a quality development, I won’t vote for it.”
Stout said he would stand firm in his opposition.
“Obviously, I’ve heard from multiple groups,” he said. “I think everyone I’ve talked with is supportive of my vote, as well as Mr. Tomita’s vote. This wording “anchor” and “catalyst” -- I just don’t think that’s what we have here.”
Tomita, who said Seaton’s comments at the public hearing were “huge,” agreed with Stout in that the developer was not bringing to that particular area of Johnson City housing for professionals.
“If I had confidence this was truly a high-end development meant for professionals -- that’s one thing,” he said. “But as a students housing complex, we’re just redistributing the population. We’re not really bringing anything new in. I have no problem with student housing; I have a problem with student housing there. There’s nothing preventing the developer from turning these into four-bedroom units.”