The former Model Mill property on West Walnut Street. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press) (Photos below by Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
Evolve Development’s new apartment complex no longer is a proposal.
After nearly six months of procedural and peripheral goings on, the City Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to rezone the former Model Mill property at 500 W. Walnut St. from B-2 (central business district) to B-3 (supporting central business district).
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, and Commissioners Jeff Banyas and Jenny Brock voted for the rezoning; Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita voted against it.
The vote set in motion the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s ability to sell the property to the developer which will build an $18.5 million, 216-unit apartment complex, using the old mill site and the now-vacant Mize Farm & Garden Supply property to make way for about 400 new residents.
Though the Chamber tried in vain for years to find a buyer, Evolve came on the scene in October and the push was on from that point to fit the apartments on what will be a roughly 6-acre lot. But the plan was met with solid resistance by the Southside Neighborhood Organization and a group of business and property owners along the Walnut Street corridor.
In the end, diplomatically constructed pleas regarding overcrowding, traffic, noise, crime — and the general argument that the facility was just not the right fit for that particular neighborhood and entrance into downtown Johnson City — played out in a very democratic fashion. Commissioners both for and against the move said so themselves before the vote.
“I find myself being the deciding vote,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said after each commissioner had their say. “There’s been some important points made. One was that there are areas within the city for which we haven’t planned well.”
Van Brocklin said he researched three questions before arriving at his decision: Will the rezoning be appropriate for the location? Will consequences result from the development that will harm the community? Is an apartment complex a reasonable use?
“I think it’s difficult for a commissioner to limit a decision in this case on the matter of whether the rezoning is appropriate alone,” Van Brocklin began, while about 120 people, knowing he was the deciding vote, listened intently. “But I do feel it is appropriate.”
The mayor said he believed traffic would increase, but a jump in crime would not automatically follow, and that an apartment complex would not harm the Tree Streets neighborhood, businesses along West Walnut Street or the community in general.
Prior to the statements revealing his intention to grant the rezoning, other commissioners weighed in.
“What more can be said,” Tomita said. “I’m not a zoning expert. I’m not an attorney. I hate the fact that we’ve divided our community. The real mettle of the community shows in dealing with issues like this. I hope this is what you say it’s going to be. This is what makes a community great — that they stay engaged.”
The new zoning designation allows the developer to place residential units on the first floor of the buildings, but it also forced the developer to abide by a city parking regulation forbidding parking lots built between the building and nearby roadways.
The Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday voted 3-1 to grant Evolve a variance to the city’s parking code, allowing part of its parking lot to be built between West State of Franklin Road and the complex’s buildings on the condition they be separated by a large berm.
Commissioner Jenny Brock told audience members that commissioners were not there to vote on the sale of the property, only the rezoning.
“The project has brought out the best in democracy — the ability to speak out,” she said. “And believe me, you have. The glaring omission in the B-2 zoning is the requirement for parking. To leave it B-2 would mean the possibility of creating a parking nightmare in the Tree Streets area. I believe the request to rezone to B-3 is appropriate.”
Stout, unlike his colleagues, kept his comments very brief.
“Whatever the result, I know we’ll continue to work together,” he said.
Banyas, who began the round of comments, thanked everyone involved for being patient and professional throughout he process. He said the suggested zoning complied with the city’s land-use plan and that his decision to vote for the rezoning was not based on the Chamber’s desire to sell the property.
“The reality is, the City Commission does not get to choose what is built there, the Chamber of Commerce does,” he said. “Building apartments is really not the issue. The issue is whether they can build apartments on the first floor. Their request is consistent with our current zoning laws. Traffic would be worse if the development was a combination of commercial and residential, and I think the development will enhance the Walnut Street corridor.”
Prior to the vote, four key players on both sides of the issue were given a few minutes to speak. It was not the first time, they had done so.
Tom McKee, Evolve representative, and Gary Mabrey, Chamber president and CEO, spoke in favor of the move.
In brief, McKee reminded commissioners their task was to deal with the rezoning only. Mabrey ran through a quick history of the property and the Chamber’s efforts to get to the point of having a buyer and developer.
Opponents Jodi Jones, SNO president, and Tom Seaton, owner of The Firehouse restaurant and spokesman for businesses in the area, also had their say.
Jones made a final plea for Van Brocklin to reconsider and reminded commissioners of the mill’s historical significance. Seaton presented a list of 18 businesses and property owners opposed to the move, citing them as “people with integrity and business acumen” who had worked hard to help build Johnson City into what it is today.
Once the vote was taken, the commission chambers emptied.
The Chamber Foundation purchased the mill property more than five years ago when it was still zoned industrial. It is paying off a $400,000 note on the property which was acquired in June 2008 using credit provided by 10 area banks.
Jerry Petzoldt, a broker for TCI Group, said the Chamber first enlisted his help in 2011 to try and facilitate the sale of the property. Petzoldt said one of the first offers was for a seven-story structure, but that fell through.
He also said he spoke with a dozen or so developers and businesses, from an investor who wanted to build a single-story complex to a truck rental company that was looking to relocate. In the end, he received no written offers from any business or developer in the Tri-Cities.
That’s when Evolve came on the scene.