Note: This story was updated at 11:20 a.m. May 14.
After rejecting an earlier version, the Oak Ridge City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to approve the latest version of the revised plan for Main Street Oak Ridge, the 58-acre project to redevelop the former Oak Ridge Mall.
The vote during a regular meeting in the Oak Ridge Municipal Building Courtroom on Monday was the first of two readings, or votes. The second vote could take place during a special meeting on Tuesday, May 21.
The approval on Monday occurred four months after Council rejected an earlier version of the plan in a 3-4 vote in January. Since then, a new revised plan has been submitted to the city, and there have been additional discussions between city officials and RealtyLink, the South Carolina developer. In April, the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission recommended 7-1 that the new plan, which is similar to the earlier plan, be approved with some conditions.
The revised plan is being considered as RealtyLink prepares to welcome a second wave of tenants to the site, which is in central Oak Ridge. It would be the second phase of the project, and it could include 90,000 square feet of new retail buildings, an open space near the Belk store, and new sidewalks and crosswalks. It could also include a bus drop-off area near the relocated American Museum of Science and Energy.
There are key proposed changes that remain unchanged from the earlier version of the plan. The access road from Rutgers Avenue to the roundabout at Main Street Oak Ridge would still be closed to allow four stores to be built along a sidewalk between PetSmart and JCPenney. The multi-family residential units that had once been proposed in the area between JCPenney and Walmart would be removed. An estimated 3.5 acres along Rutgers Avenue would be reserved for retail uses, and a similar-sized mixed-use area would still be proposed in the area along Wilson Street. (Mixed-use developments can include retailers, restaurants, residential units, and offices, among other possibilities.)
The Planning Commission recommended certain conditions related to the mixed-use areas, future green space adjacent to AMSE, and landscaping, trees, and benches in sidewalk areas. There are also items of agreement or recommended items of agreement related to removing on-site storage of building materials; the completion of sidewalk construction; installing a fence or vegetative screening along the backs of west-facing retail buildings (Electronic Express, PetSmart, and other Phase II buildings); participating in mixed-use development planning and implementation for Wilson Street; and cooperating to allow parking areas and open spaces to be used for community gatherings such as organized events.
The City Council did not make any changes to what was presented to members by the city staff after the Planning Commission vote in April. There has been less public opposition this time compared to the earlier process, which ran from about October to January.
City officials have said there were some tough decisions, and some compromises were made. It’s not a perfect plan, officials said.
But, “I do believe this is the best option for us right now in Oak Ridge,” said Council member Derrick Hammond, who was one of three City Council members to change votes between January and Monday. Hammond and Council members Jim Dodson and Chuck Hope voted against the earlier version of the revised plan on second and final reading in January and for the newest version on first reading on Monday.
Council member Ellen Smith, who also voted “no” in January, cast the only “no” vote on Monday. She said she is not opposed to development and has been excited about the progress at Main Street so far, but she expressed concern about the physical configuration of the shopping center, saying it could tie the city’s hands in the future. The site could gain retail but lose long-term value, Smith said.
Those who supported the revised plan in January and again on Monday were Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn, and Council member Kelly Callison. Among other things, they have cited the anticipated tax revenues from the four new stores that could be built, the need for more retail, and the impact that continued development at Main Street could have on downtown revitalization and other economic development projects such as housing projects.
“Our city needs Main Street,” Gooch said. “It is vitally important to the future of this city.”
Neil Wilson of RealtyLink said it will help with retailers that Oak Ridge has been supportive of the project. It’s not a perfect plan, but he has not seen a perfect plan in 21 years in the business, Wilson said.
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” he told Council members.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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