Council OKs plat for Washington Center

Published 6:44 pm Wednesday, August 15, 2007

By Staff
Project’s height, design worrying residents, others
Contributing Editor
The proposed Washington Center project cleared a hurdle Monday night when the City Council voted 4-1 to approve the project’s preliminary subdivision plat.
The seven-story project’s proposed height — 95 feet, 10 inches from the curb to the highest point on its roof — concerns council members and others who attended the council’s meeting. The project’s proposed design also has drawn criticism.
The city’s Planning Board recommended the council approve the preliminary subdivision plat, subject to conditions imposed by the city’s Technical Review Committee. During the board’s public hearing on the plat, several people voiced their objections to the project’s height and design. Planning Board member Steve Moler voted against recommending the council approve the plat.
The proposed project — a mix of residential and commercial uses — meets all of the city’s applicable existing zoning regulations and subdivision requirements, according to the city’s planning and development director.
The project’s residential component includes 24 one-bedroom units, 24 two-bedroom units and 24 three-bedroom units. The structure includes 18,000 square feet of commercial space.
Washington Center, which could cost about $36 million to build, is planned for the block bounded on the west by Bridge Street, on the north by West Third Street, on the east by Van Norden Street and on the south by West Second Street.
The next step is for the project’s developers to present a site plan to the Planning Board for its consideration. If the site plan is approved, the project may proceed, Bobby Roberson, the city’s planning and development director, said earlier this year. If the site plan is rejected by the board, the developers may appeal the board’s decision to the Board of Adjustment. If unhappy with the Board of Adjustment’s ruling, the developers may appeal to the state’s court system.
Because the project is outside the city’s Historic District, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission would not review plans for the project, unless asked to do so by the Planning Board. Even then, Roberson said in May, the commission could only offer suggestions, and those suggestions would focus only on construction materials for the exterior of the building.
Planning Board member Dot Moate told the council that although the board recommended the council approve the plat, it was “not very happy with the height of the building.” Because the project meets all of the city’s applicable zoning regulations and subdivision requirements, “our hands were tied,” Moate said of the board’s decision to recommend the plat be approved.
Mayor Pro Tempore Darwin Woolard said the city “got caught with our pants down” in regard to this project because its current applicable regulations allow a building to be up to 96 feet tall in an area so close to the city’s Historic District.
During the public hearing on the plat, people who attended the hearing were asked to show their approval or disapproval of the project by raising their hands. An observation of that procedure indicated about three-fifths of those who raised their hands support the project and the remaining two-fifths oppose the project.
Charles Major questioned if the project is appropriate for the Historic District. Some people who oppose the project feel it’s “being jammed down our throats,” he said.
Major said he takes exception to developers characterizing the project as a landmark in the city.
Major said the project would diminish the historical significance of the nearby First United Methodist Church and the Moss House Bed and Breakfast. Major also said the project likely would add to an existing traffic problem at the intersection of Bridge and West Second streets.
Major wants the developers to “put in writing” an assurance that the project’s green space would remain that way and open to the public.
Scott Sipprell, who owns the Moss House Bed and Breakfast along with his wife, expressed concern the project will overshadow his business and that noise, dust and dirt associated with construction of Washington Center will adversely affect his business.
Sipprell said the project would result in “visual damage to the town’s center. Washington Center is not appropriate growth for the city, he said.
Project supporter Margaret Holder said the developers are “not a fly-by-night operation.” Holder said the developers have carefully considered the project, which she thinks will help bring economic growth to the city.
Holder said Washington Center will be an “improvement, not an infringement.”
Councilman Archie Jennings, who voted against approving the plat, said he is not opposed to the project. Jennings said his vote reflected his desire for the council to hold off approving the plat until after the developers received a marketing study about the project. That study would provide the developers and the city better information about the project’s chance to succeed, Jennings said.
Jennings suggested the council talk with the developers, after they receive the study, about the project so it could “get comfortable” with it.
Jack Ulrichs, one of the developers, and Frank Smith, the project’s architect, said the study’s findings could result in the project being modified. Those findings could cast a different light on the project, Jennings said. He said the council would be in a better position to make a decision about the project if it waited for the study, then reviewed it.
Mayor Judy Meier Jennette, who supports the project, said she has concerns about it “overshadowing” nearby residences and buildings such as the First United Methodist Church. The mayor also said she would like the project’s design modified to some degree to “make it mesh more with the Historic District.”
Responding to concerns about the project’s design, Ulrichs and Smith said they are willing to consider making changes so the project is more visually appealing. Smith said the study’s findings and construction costs could result in a smaller project, possibly a project built in phases.
For additional coverage of the council’s meeting, see future editions of the Daily News.