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Roanoke Free Press
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Council agrees to delay vote on Huff Lane property rezoning

Huff Lane Parcel Zoning

Huff Lane Parcel Zoning

On December 20 Dorchester Court neighbors lined up at a public hearing before the Planning Commission asking and at times pleading for a denial to the application submitted by NDRA II, LLC for two hotels and a restaurant. The commission agreed with the neighborhood that the property was not part of Valley View Mall. It didn’t fit the Williamson Road Neighborhood Plan and engrossed as part of the city’s 2001-2020 Comprehensive Plan.

In his decision Planning Commission member Chad Van Hyning said it boiled down to the neighborhood plan for him. “The community design policy says that commercial development areas, existing land uses and scale of development should reflect the purpose of the zoning district.”

City Council was expected to approve the plan over the unanimous negative recommendation of the Planning Commission on Tuesday. NDRA I,I LLC representative Sheldon Bower from Parker Design Group sent a letter to the City Clerk’s office asking to delay the vote saying they were continuing to refine the design.

The public hearing was already advertised so it had to move forward. Council agreed to the delay until February 19 when another public hearing will be held. Council can again delay or vote depending on the amount of time neighbors had to review the redesign.

Nine Dorchester Court residents spoke at the public hearing including former council member Linda Wyatt who was allowed to address council twice. She told Mayor Bowers that he had always been a strong supporter of neighborhoods and asked him “not to lose sight of that now.”

David Fletcher said the project “doesn’t fit our neighborhood plan.” He asked that the property be considered for “mixed use” instead of Large Scale Commercial.

Amy Cosner said dialogue was lacking. “A breach of our neighborhood would be unconscionable,” she said. “The [hotel] height is not the issue.”

Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Association

Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Association

Patrick Corp, President of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Association said their opposition to the hotels was unanimous. “The whole process has been disrespectful.”

Robert Lynch said there was inadequate notification and he only learned about it a month and a half ago. He felt like they were being treated as second-class citizens. He asked how they (council members) would like looking at 5-story hotels in their neighborhood.

Ray McKee resident of Dorchester Drive has taken on the role of community organizer. He has even created a website. McKee sent a letter to Hitesh M. Patel the principal at HMP Properties. In it he asked that they terminate the project. McKee said that “Roanoke city officials will continue to do all that they can to force through this sale … This type of hollowed ‘victory’ would not be welcomed by most fellow business owners.”

Whether his letter had any effect on the request for a delay is not clear. Sheldon Bower has not responded to calls for comment on what design changes he was planning to make.

In an email McKee said he didn’t understand what they (NDRA II) hoped to gain by the delay. “I can only hope that the Patels seize the opportunity to simply walk away from the proposal.”

Roanoke’s Northwest Huff Lane Elementary School was targeted for closure in 2010. The property was returned to the city for disposition and city council decided that the proceeds from the sale would revert back to Roanoke City Public Schools so Round Hill Elementary could be expanded to accommodate the transferring students.

At the vote to close the school, Roanoke City School Board Chairman David Carson admitted that Huff Lane was more marketable than Round Hill but any sale of the property would be “acceptable to or address the concerns of all in conjunction with the neighborhood, city and the school system.”

Unbeknown to the Dorchester Court neighborhood the thought process was in the works for hotels to take the school’s place. Vice Mayor Court Rosen, friend to neighborhoods took the lead in selling the neighborhood on the hotel idea in March of 2011. The time for the neighborhood to act was then.

By the time the Dorchester Court neighborhood realized the extent of the 5.3-acre encroachment it was considered too late. Dorchester Court Neighborhood Association Past President Amy  Cosner persisted in demanding that the school property revert to a neighborhood park.

The conceptual hotel designs Rosen produced in 2011 did not illustrate building height. It did illustrate plenty of green space and a very small parking lot. He emphasized that the tennis court area on the south side of the ball fields would be enhanced with playgrounds, an improved pavilion and bathrooms.

“None of the usable park that you have is going to be taken,” Rosen told the neighborhood. The basketball court and playground would be relocated.

There has been little talk or timeline for park improvements since then. Rosen urged staff to emphasize the improvements as they were preparing to present the NDRA II, LLC hotel and restaurant design plans in a January 2012 meeting with the neighborhood. The footprint of two hotels and a restaurant had no detail.

In interviewing Steve Albis, a representative of HMP Properties following the January meeting he said that to be a profitable it would take 80-100 rooms that would be in two buildings of 5 or 6 levels. He said the restaurant would match the quality of the hotel franchises yet to be determined.

Another opportunity for the neighborhood to voice decent was missed on March 19, 2012 when city council voted unanimously to accept the NDRA II, LLC offer of $1.85 million. This was the highest of 7 offers. No neighborhood member spoke at the public hearing.

In April through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Economic Development Department one offer stuck out above the rest. National College wanted to repurpose the school building and turn it into a nursing campus. They would add on a central financial office building for its 29 campus locations later. The bid though was $500,000 under the set minimum of $1.5 million. Other offers over the minimum bid included another hotel and a large one-story retail building with another smaller store and a restaurant.

Frank Longaker, President, National College said that he felt “our proposal for a medical careers campus was not only more forward-thinking than yet another commercial development, but also much more in keeping with the nature of the surrounding neighborhoods and original school on the site.

There’s more the city can benefit from than simple sales tax revenue when one considers the jobs that future graduates o f our proposed campus would bring in. Our current campus in Salem has an annual economic impact of approximately $25 million annually; our proposed new location would, within a few years, have a comparable impact.”

Rick Williams, a Planning Commission member said “that in intensity of land use and consistency with the comprehensive plan [National College] would be a better fit for the adjoining neighborhood.”

The Dorchester neighborhood alarm didn’t go off until a November open house detailing the hotel and restaurant development design. A December meeting followed where most all council members attended. The impression was that it was too little too late to mount objection to the plan.

Resident Ray McKee went into full activism mode. Flyers flew and a website was created. A new neighborhood president Patrick Corp took the reins and a full-court press to kill the project was on. At the December Linda Wyatt said “we were assured absolutely that no commercial building would be done on this side of the road.” She told council members that they were breaking a promise.

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