Supporters, opponents of Model Mill property rezoning prepare for next steps

Nathan Baker • Apr 7, 2014 at 1:47 PM

With the Model Mill property finally rezoned by the Johnson City Commission, the developers of the proposed apartment complex are eagerly resuming the planning and permitting process, but those who stood in opposition to the project’s progression through local government are hesitant to let go of the past.

“Now that it’s been rezoned, we’re where we should have been five months ago,” Scott Austin, one of the four principals of Evolve Development, said Friday. “We’re really almost starting from scratch at this point.”

After navigating the final obstacle locally, the company will now commission architectural plans, bid out the demolition and site work and will then be able to begin construction, he said.

The builders must also receive approval from the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation to amend the brownfield agreement with the state, allowing the former industrial site to be used as residential apartments.

Austin estimated it should take 120 days to draw the plans and bid out the contracts, between 60 and 90 days for demolition of the former flour mill structures and the now vacant Mize Farm & Garden Supply and another 90 days for site work, including grading, installing water and sewer infrastructure and pouring the foundations for the five apartment buildings.

That puts the date when Evolve could begin construction of the 216-unit complex near the first of next year. Austin said the construction could take about a year to complete.

Gary Mabrey, president and CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce, which owns the Model Mill property, said he’s glad to be making progress on the sale and development of the land.

The Chamber Foundation purchased the century-old site in 2008, hoping to facilitate rehabilitation of the structure and relocate the Chamber’s offices there, but Mabrey said the organization didn’t receive feasible interest for that prospect.

Since the Chamber announced Evolve’s plans for the site, Mabrey has insisted the multifamily housing development was the right move for the Chamber and the surrounding community.

Some business owners along Walnut Street and residents of the nearby Tree Streets neighborhood however, maintained relentless opposition to the project as it plodded through the city’s approval process.

They voiced concerns regarding the amount of added traffic and crime the units could bring, and said the mill should be preserved as a historical artifact of Johnson City’s past.

“From those I talked to, an overwhelming majority of the people wanted to save the mill, and maybe have businesses and a welcome center downtown,” Jose Castillo, owner of Spark Plaza in the downtown core, said. ”Supposedly the last hurdle has been jumped, but there’s always hope.”

Those emphasizing the historical nature of the Model Mill hoped a late-sent letter from the Tennessee Historical Commission would save the property.

In the letter, dated March 31 and addressed to the City Commission, Certified Local Government Coordinator Dan Brown wrote that the state commission was concerned about the potential demolition of the mill and urged the city leaders not to support the project.

The mill, he wrote, was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and could qualify for some financial incentives to help defray the costs of its rehabilitation.

Some pointed to the nearly complete $38 million renovation of the Loray Mill in Gastonia, N.C., a Charlotte suburb, as an example of the potential of Johnson City’s mill.

Other opponents fought the project on the legality of some of the exemptions granted to the property by city boards.

Amber Lee, an attorney and a member of the Southside Neighborhood Organization, still contends the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals acted outside of its purview when its members granted a variance to the properties last week.

At the BZA meeting and during a telephone interview afterward, she insisted the board did not have the right to grant an exception for the property on the grounds that part of it lies in a 100-year floodplain, because all of the properties along Brush Creek lie in the same floodplain.

Variances are intended to be used to alleviate hardships cause by unique attributes, Lee said. The city should have taken the time to create an overlay floodplain district to help all of the property owners along State of Franklin.

Lee wouldn’t comment on whether she or a representative of the neighborhood organization would file a lawsuit based on what she perceived as an illegal variance.

“At this time, the neighborhood organization will not make a comment regarding the next step,” she said. “Personally, I will state that I would like to work with the Board of Zoning Appeals to make sure that Tennessee law is followed when variances are granted or denied in the future.

“In my opinion, after consulting with attorneys that have infinitely more property and zoning experience than I do, I believe this variance was granted in error,” she added.

Neither Mabrey nor Austin said they were worried by the prospect of a legal action based on the zoning board’s decision. Lee’s complaint lay with the BZA, not Evolve or the Chamber, they said.

“I think that was all taken care of at that meeting,” Austin said. “I don’t believe there are any legal concerns regarding our project whatsoever.”

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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