UPDATE: Commissioners explain why they voted how they did in rezoning of mill property

Gary B. Gray • Feb 21, 2014 at 2:16 PM

A nearly four-hour debate Thursday night resulted in the City Commission’s narrow 3-2 approval of a second reading to rezone the former Mennel Milling Co. and current Mize Farm & Garden sites to make way for an $18.5 million, 216-unit apartment complex.

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.

Commission chambers were overflowing with Tree Streets residents, business owners and others interested in the development at 500 W. Walnut St., and the mandatory public hearing turned out to be one of the most controversial ever heard by commissioners.

North Carolina’s Evolve Development Evolve wants to rezone the property from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business), and a first reading on Feb. 6 passed unanimously with relatively little conversation.

The Johnson City/Washington County Area Chamber of Commerce owns the mill property, and it’s no secret the metaphorical “for sale” sign has been blowing in the wind for years. 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.

Tom KcKee, legal counsel for Evolve, highlighted the positive points of the development and reminded commissioners several times that their task was only to make a decision on the rezoning, though he did confirm developers had not been toppling over each other to get their hands on the land when he referred to the mill as a “white elephant.”

“I appreciated the fact that the conversation was kept civil,” Van Brocklin said Friday about the public hearing, which at times did get a bit tense. “I felt the points made by the residents and businesses were well-presented. One of the big arguments was whether B-3 was the appropriate zoning, and I felt like it was.”

Both zoning districts allow multi-family uses, but businesses 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.

Tree Streets residents expressed their concern about the likelihood that most tenants would be college students, which could increase traffic and bring more noise and crime to the area.

“This may be the hardest rezoning I’ve had to sit through,” Van Brocklin said. “I do have a concern that a certain amount of the people that will be living there may not have a lot of buying power and whether the developer is really serious about bringing in professionals (to live there).

“One month ago, I was 100 percent behind this. Now, that’s about 70 percent, and that stems from concern over who will end up being the tenants there. I think Mr. Seaton’s statements prompted a drop in my confidence level.”

Van Brocklin credited Tom Seaton, owner of the Firehouse Restaurant on Walnut Street and the former chamber of commerce board chairman, with prompting “a drop in my confidence level” about the project.

Seaton gained the commissioners’ attention early on in the conversation. He spoke on behalf of perhaps a dozen business owners along Walnut Street and near the planned development, saying first that the group wanted to see a commercial component included in the project. That is not in the current plan.

“The first plan discussed was a higher-end complex designed to attract higher-end tenants,” he told commissioners. “It’s a concern for us that the developer changed plans.”

Seaton was referring to Evolve’s decision -- which came in mid-stride -- to rent by the room.

“It would have been better to have had that information up front,” he said. “In our opinion, a student-based apartment complex does not suit surrounding businesses and developments. This is a key anchor of an area between ETSU and downtown.”Stout and Tomita agreed with Seaton.

“To me, there were a lot of other issues other than rezoning,” Stout said. “I’m concerned with the saturation of apartment complexes in that area, and I do feel that particular project was not the right fit for my vision of the city. When you look at all the hours, the studies and the money put into planning downtown revitalization -- we need to be selective, and not just go for the first bite on the hook.”

Tomita said he had no problem with student housing per se, but he agreed with Stout that the project was not the right fit for that particular piece of property.

“It has morphed into what will be student housing,” he said. “If we truly were bringing in people with discretionary income -- that’s different.”

Commissioners are expected to vote on a third and final reading to rezone the property March 6.


Earlier report:

The City Commission last night voted 3-2 on second reading to rezone property at the former Mennel Mill Co. site to make way for a 216-unit apartment complex. North Carolina's Evolve Development plans an $18.5 million project at 500 W. Walnut St. Debate on the rezoning lasted until midnight before the measure narrowly passed. Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita voted against the rezoning.

See Friday's story for details of the discussion that went well into the night. Keep checking www.JohnsonCityPress.com and read Saturday's Johnson City Press for more details on the debate over the project.

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