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Nearby residents unhappy with evolution of Evolve plan

Nathan Baker • Jan 13, 2014 at 9:16 PM

A proposed apartment complex on the site of a defunct flour mill will offer options for student renters, a revelation that some nearby residents weren’t exactly happy to hear.

Since the proposal for the 216-unit project by North Carolina-based Evolve Development LLC, on the site of the former Model Mill and the current Mize Farm & Garden Supply properties, was first made public, homeowners and residents of the well-established Tree Streets neighborhood have voiced concerns that the tenants could primarily be college students, and could move traffic, noise and crime into their lives.

To quell those fears, Johnson City Chamber of Commerce Director Gary Mabrey has insisted to neighborhood association meetings and journalists that the target tenants for the new apartments will be families and young professionals.

“There isn’t any question as to what this is,” Mabrey said in a November interview. “It’s multi-family housing. Multi-family is what makes sense for this property.”

A month later, Mabrey again underscored the intended family renters when he intentionally drew a line between the Evolve development and dedicated student housing buildings taking shape on the State of Franklin corridor.

“One is student housing, and the other is intended for multi-family apartments,” he said. “There’s a dog park and a children’s playground in this one, and I think that’s something that isn’t really aimed at students.”

But at an informational meeting last week with Tree Streets residents, Johnson City attorney Tom McKee, who is representing Evolve as it seeks zoning changes from the city, revealed the company will allow tenants to rent by the bedroom, a common practice for student housing.

McKee said Stephen Austin, an Evolve co-founder, initially told residents early in the development process that there was no intention to rent by the room, but market conditions later caused that to change.

“We have a situation now where apartments are being built everywhere,” the former Johnson City politician said Monday. “People aren’t buying houses, they’re renting. (Evolve doesn’t) want to tie their hands, when a lot of people — not just students -— want to rent by the room.”

He said renting by the room won’t be mandatory, but will be an option for tenants.

But the change of plans left some Tree Streets residents feeling that the company had been disingenuous, Southside Neighborhood Organization member Amber Lee said.

After the meeting last week, the consensus among the organization’s members seemed to be calling for a corridor study on Walnut Street to determine the proper path for its growth.

“Previous to this meeting, I think the vote had been that we wanted to support this developer,” Lee said Friday. ”After last night, I’m not sure what the neighborhood wants to do anymore. It was said within the crowd that it might be better to leave the mill standing than to let this project go through.”

Some are worried that the property’s new zoning, if approved, would allow for fraternity and sorority houses, which have long had a tenuous relationship with the neighborhood’s groups.

“ETSU has been looking for a place for a fraternity row, and it could be on Walnut, that’s a concern for our neighborhood,” Lee said. “Our neighborhood isn’t zoned for it, but some nuisance properties have been grandfathered in.”

McKee said fraternity houses are not part of Evolve’s plans.

“I know they’re very dedicated to their neighborhood, and they’re upset because they think there may be some student hosting down there,” he said. “But if there are some students living there, it’s a free country, they cannot discriminate against any tenants for anything. Personally, I think they’re overreacting.”

McKee will outline Evolve’s plans today at a Johnson City Planning Commission meeting, where he will ask for the required zoning change for the property.

If it’s approved, the recommendation will go before the full City Commission for a vote, paired with Evolve’s request for a variance to allow parking between State of Franklin Road and the development’s buildings.

The 216 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will add to State of Franklin’s apartment row, a corridor between ETSU and the city’s downtown currently experiencing a housing boom.

In addition to the already existing Rose Park Condominiums and University Edge Apartments, at least three other complexes have announced plans to build, bringing the total number of off-campus bedrooms along that stretch of road to nearly 1,800.

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