|By David Ress, The Roanoke Times,
Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 20, 2013--The Roanoke City Council gave a preliminary green light Tuesday night to a plan to replace the shuttered Huff Lane Intermediate School with two hotels and a restaurant, over the strong objections of residents of the neighborhoods nearby.
The council voted 4-3 for the plan of NDRA II, an affiliate of Williamsburg-based hotel operator HMP Properties, to build the project. But because fewer than five voted in favor, the council will reconsider the matter in a second reading on March 4.
Neighbors urged the council to reject the plan, saying intensive commercial development on the site would overwhelm the neighborhood, creating safety and quality of life challenges and likely cutting property values. They said that was the case even with changes the developer made to lower the hotels' profile after the planning commission rejected its original proposal.
"For a use abutting a neighborhood, a hotel is a good use ... a quiet use," said Vice Mayor Court Rosen, explaining why he supported the project.
Councilmen David Trinkle and Ray Ferris echoed that, saying they felt the hotel would be a good buffer between Valley View Mall and the Dorchester Court neighborhood. Councilman Bill Bestpitch said he felt the project was needed for the future of the city.
Other council members disagreed.
"To me nothing is more important than keeping neighborhoods strong," said Councilman Sherman Lea, speaking against the project. Councilwoman Anita Price said the project was in the wrong place.
"I believe it is an encroachment," Mayor David Bowers said. "I'm concerned about the scale. ... I'm really concerned about access to Valley View [Boulevard]."
More than 20 people spoke, mostly against the project. Many of the roughly 100 people cramming the council chamber held up yellow and pink signs saying "No," and "7-0," the vote of the planning commission in rejecting the hotels and restaurant proposal.
"Is this the beginning of the end for our neighborhood?" Dorchester Court resident Celia Collins said. "Please don't commercialize us with hotels and restaurants. ... Eventually it will take over the neighborhood."
"You will have to choose between asphalt, concrete and steel and green space, between deteriorating homes and restored homes," resident Andrew Friedman said.
But Tommy Jordan, a former resident, said he felt the whole city would benefit.
"There are great homes in that neighborhood, there are great people in that neighborhood, and that's not going to change if we get that hotel," he said.
Neighborhood residents, though, said they fear the hotels and restaurant will create noise and boost traffic and crime.
Replacing the school with intensive commercial development "would cut into the heart of the neighborhood, and the heart would wither," said Pat Corp, president of the Dorchester Court Neighborhood Watch Association.
"I ask you to look at these people," Corp said, gesturing at residents who packed the council chamber. "They are black and white, young and old. These are not the emotional few, these are good people, and they really care about their neighborhood."
Taking into account planning commission objections, NDRA II has cut the height of the hotel buildings to 54 feet from 60 feet, and has lowered the grade of the site, so that the first floor of the hotels would be 4 1/2 feet lower than the school's floors now are. Taken together, that should reduce the profile of the hotels by 10 1/2 feet, as seen from Dorchester Court and Grandview neighborhoods, the developer said.
The developer agreed to purchase the 5.3-acre school site in March, after offering to pay the highest price for the land out of seven responses to the city's request for proposals.
The purchase, which has not been completed because it is conditioned on a rezoning to allow commercial development, does not involve the southern two-thirds of the tract, which is to remain a park.
The developer has said its project could generate $1 million a year in new tax revenue, while the city is hoping to use $1.7 million in proceeds from selling the Huff Lane school site to help pay for renovating and expanding Round Hill Elementary School.
(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)
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