‘Switcheroo’? William Taylor Plaza developer stuns City Council

Neighbors aren't too thrilled that William Taylor Plaza will be home of a Fairfield Inn on the corner of Ridge and Cherry,
BCA Architects and Engineers Neighbors aren’t too thrilled that William Taylor Plaza will be home of a Fairfield Inn on the corner of Ridge and Cherry, BCA Architects and Engineers

The darling of 21st-century community design is the “planned unit development,” which typically combines commercial and residential for high-density, pedestrian friendly living. So when the developer of the already controversial William Taylor Plaza PUD told City Council July 6 there was no requirement for a residential component, councilors put the brakes on a rezoning amendment they’d seemed poised to approve

“Eliminating the residential portion was not an option when the PUD was approved in ’09 and no one who sat through the whole excruciating process would think otherwise,” says resident Antoinette Roades.

For more than a decade, Southern Development has been trying to build on the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue, with opposition from some residents in the historic African-American community and concerns that there may be a 19th-century cemetery on the site. In 2008, the city agreed to sell two parcels it owned on the corner to the company, and in 2009 the entire 2.9-acre lot was rezoned for mixed use, with residential fronting Ridge Street and the commercial on Cherry.

Southern Development now wants to put a Fairfield Inn on Cherry Avenue, and had requested a rezoning amendment for more surface parking, which was rebuffed in May by the Planning Commission 5-0.

“PUDs are usually about residential,” says City Councilor Dede Smith. “The fact this is now focused on commercial, that was the big shocker. I think everyone was shocked.”

After Southern Development’s Charlie Armstrong asserted that the parcel could be all commercial at the council meeting, City Attorney Craig Brown read notes on the development plans. “It says it shall be mixed use—commercial and residential,” he says. “The applicant needs to make revisions to eliminate the contradiction between saying it could be all commercial and notes that say it should have some residential.”

A couple of days after the City Council meeting, Armstrong admits, “We had a different interpretation. We didn’t think it was required in 2009. Craig Brown was right.”

Adds Armstrong, “We’re clarifying the language in the amendment and making it very clear it will include residential.”

Not everyone is reassured. Councilor Smith isn’t pleased that Southern’s plan uses the term “arboretum,” which has a specific definition of trees grown for study or display. “They’re preserving green space, but it is not an arboretum. It’s emblematic of this project that we’re being misled. We believe something is going to happen, and Charlie Armstrong is saying what they want to do is different.”

Even those councilors who don’t think the Fairfield Inn is the best choice agree that under the 2009 PUD rezoning, the type of commercial use allowed isn’t really defined.

“A hotel is already allowed there,” says City Councilor Kristin Szakos.

Residents hate the idea so much they collected more than 500 signatures on a petition presented to City Council July 6.

Former City Council candidate Melvin Grady, who helped gather signatures, acknowledges his NIMBYism. “I don’t want a hotel in my neighborhood, period,” he says. “Do we need more hotels?”

And he calls Szakos’ support of the rezoning amendment because it would provide jobs “condescending.” He describes it as saying, “We know what’s best for you in your own neighborhood.”

Szakos says she’s not supporting the hotel, she supports the zoning amendment, and she says she’s heard two very different things from the people in that neighborhood. “The lack of economic development on Cherry Avenue is hurting people and has hurt the neighborhood,” she says.

Kim Lauter’s backyard butts up to what will be parking at William Taylor Plaza and she says the developer’s plans feel like “a switcheroo.” She lives in an historic, 1895-built house on Ridge. “Putting a Fairfield Inn doesn’t keep with the historic character of the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s very offensive, particularly to the African Americans who grew up here.”

Dede Smith points out that urban renewal altered the neighborhood when Fifth Street Extended was built and a house on that corner was torn down. “I just think we owe it to this neighborhood to be careful about what we allow—if we have a choice.”

Former city councilor Kendra Hamilton signed the petition, and says when the project first came before her, council was looking for a gateway to the city with affordable housing and a “huge public access/public benefit component” with respect for the historic character of the neighborhood. When she looks at the latest proposal, she doesn’t see that, and instead sees a “crappy hotel chain,” she writes in an e-mail. “But people can walk to their minimum wage jobs, so we’re told to be grateful.”