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Nathan Baker

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Board of Zoning Appeals to consider Evolve variance for Mill property

March 31st, 2014 9:36 pm by Nathan Baker

Board of Zoning Appeals to consider Evolve variance for Mill property

Evolve Development is seeking an exception to Johnson City's zoning ordinance to build a parking lot for a proposed apartment complex between what is now the Model Mill property and State of Franklin Road. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)

Tuesday at 6 p.m., the much-debated multi-family housing complex proposed for the land between State of Franklin Road and West Walnut Street will be discussed by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, one of its last stops before final approval.

Evolve Development, the company proposing the 216-unit apartment complex on the spot where the defunct Model Mill and the vacated Mize Farm & Garden Supply stands, is seeking a variance, or exception, from the city’s parking code to allow part of its parking lot to be built between State of Franklin Road and the complex’s buildings.

Without the variance, Evolve would be required to construct some of its five planned buildings in the defined 100-year floodplain within five feet of the busy roadway.

The final step in the approval of the project will potentially take place later this week, when the City Commission is scheduled to consider a rezoning of the mill property from B-2 (central business district) to B-3 (supporting central business district).

The new zoning designation would allow the complex to have residential units on the first floor of the buildings, but also forces the development to abide by a city parking regulation forbidding parking lots built between the building and nearby roadways, unless the BZA grants the variance.

Representatives of the Southside Neighborhood Organization, a group of residents from the nearby Tree Streets neighborhood that has opposed the development since its early stages, claim the project does not meet the legal requirements for a variance from the board.

In a six-page letter sent to the BZA opposing the variance, attorney and SNO member Amber Floyd Lee outlined seven points she said justified the denial of the request, chief among them the assertion that the hardship of the floodplain on the property is not a unique characteristic.

“Up and down that corridor you have that floodplain,” Lee said Monday. “It’s not a unique condition for that property, and it’s not an appropriate reason to grant a variance.”

By allowing an exception for the property after the rezoning process, which the SNO has also publicly opposed, the BZA would create a special case that is not equitable for the other property owners along State of Franklin and West Walnut Street, she said.

But Johnson City Development Coordinator Steve Neilson disagrees.

From his position with the city Planning Division, he has been working closely with Evolve to help guide the company through the approval process.

“We feel this is an appropriate use of the property, and it’s not going to have a detrimental effect on the community,” he said. “There is parking all along that corridor at many of the properties — some of them have large seas of parking. This one will have a landscape berm that will buffer the cars from the street, so we don’t see it as having a negative impact.”

Without the variance, Evolve would be required to put some of its buildings no more than five feet from State of Franklin, right in the 100-year floodplain, which Neilson said is not a good practice.

“It’s definitely a hardship,” he said. “Forcing them to fill the floodplain with a building is just not good planning.”

While the attorneys duke it out in City Hall, the current and potential future owners of the Model Mill property are watching from the sidelines, hopeful that the requests are approved.

The former, the Chamber Foundation of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, has been looking to unload the property for years.

Chamber President and CEO Gary Mabrey said the nonprofit originally purchased the vacant mill in 2008, hoping to renovate it for the new Chamber headquarters and lease or sell the remaining floor space to a commercial business.

That proposition did not pan out, and the century-old site has been on the market through the worst of the latest economic recession.

Mabrey contends the Evolve plan is the most feasible offer the Chamber has received thus far, and would increase the property’s value and bring families and professionals closer to the blossoming downtown core.

To counter that, some residents and business owners who oppose the project point to the late revelation by Evolve that the units would be available for rent by the bedroom, a common practice in student housing.

Those opponents say the development will bring hundreds of students, traffic and crime to West Walnut and flood the rental market with too many units.

If the BZA approves the variance, the Evolve project must still be approved by the City Commission on Thursday on third reading.

If it passes those final steps, Mabrey said the company will quickly close on the two properties and begin construction soon.

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