Oak Ridge officials have discussed the revised plan for the next phase of Main Street Oak Ridge in a half-dozen meetings since October, and in that time, the Municipal Planning Commission has had a split vote and City Council members have expressed divided opinions about the plan.
The Planning Commission, which has generally had concerns about the revisions and had postponed a vote, approved a version of the revised plan, subject to 10 conditions, in a 5-4 vote during a special meeting on Wednesday.
It’s not clear what will happen when the City Council considers the Planning Commission’s recommendation on Monday, December 10. Several Council members have had concerns, while others seemed ready to allow RealtyLink, the developer, to proceed with the 58-acre redevelopment.
The revisions have been proposed as RealtyLink prepares to welcome a second wave of tenants to the former mall site. The changes, which planning commissioners have called significant, would eliminate multifamily units and add retail uses, according to the city staff. The proposed revisions have included removing the access road from the roundabout to Rutgers Avenue, building four stores in that area (between PetSmart and JCPenney), eliminating the planned multi-family residential units near JCPenney, adding sidewalks and open space, and including mixed-use development in a later phase along Wilson Street.
Those who have had concerns have been disappointed about the proposal to close the access road and a shift from what they thought was going to be a mixed-use center with residential units, retailers, restaurants, and a central gathering space, to what could be primarily a shopping center. They have argued that a mixed-use area could improve the long-term viability of the project.
“The overwhelming response I’ve heard is: We want a town center,” said Stephen Whitson, Planning Commission chair. “I’ve heard it over and over.”
Those who would like to proceed are worried that RealtyLink could move on to other developments in other communities if its revised project here is not approved, and they have cited the potential sales tax revenues from the new retailers as an important consideration. The new retailers could include apparel stores and a home store.
Complicating the project are various lease and deed restrictions that control what can be built where. Lease restrictions include, for example, limits on the size of buildings on Wilson Street and restrictions on parking lot use near Cinemark Tinseltown, with no residential within 300 feet of the closest boundary corner.
The question now is whether the city wants to “hold out for something better” or act on a plan that is ready to go, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said during a November 8 work session featuring Planning Commission and City Council.
RealtyLink has said the proposed changes to the plan are tenant-driven, and the company has limited control over the site plans. Five national tenants are “at the table,” Neil Wilson, RealtyLink principal, told planning commissioners in October. RealtyLink has taken a plan first proposed by Crosland Southeast, the original developer, and adopted and revised it.
New stores would not be expected to be open by Christmas 2019, but they could be open sometime around the spring of 2020, according to the discussion at a November 8 work session.
Here is a timeline of the discussion in five meetings since October. It includes the opinions of planning commissioners and City Council members, and the results of the Wednesday vote.
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