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Speakers at a meeting Monday night said Fiddler's Green Partners' plans don't guarantee what sort of uses the buildings will be put to.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Skeptical-sounding residents grilled the would-be developers of the old Blacksburg Middle School site Monday, saying they’d like more specific — or just different — plans for the 20-acre, downtown property.
“It’s unclear to me that anyone’s committed to anything at this point,” said Kim Kipling of Blacksburg, professor emeritus of philosophy at Radford University and husband of town Councilwoman Susan Anderson.
Attorney Jim Cowan, who represents developer Fiddler’s Green Partners, said that the proposed mix of office, commercial and residential space depends on a rezoning request winning approval from town council members.
“No one will lease or buy a commercial building when you don’t have the rezoning. … It’s a little bit of chicken and the egg,” Cowan said.
“We have folks who are very interested,” he added.
Kipling and other speakers protested that the plans Fiddler’s Green Partners submitted with its rezoning request lock in building locations, but don’t guarantee what sort of uses the buildings will be put to. “And that’s the same thing that happened with First and Main,” Kipling said, referring to a South Main Street shopping center built by Jeanne Stosser, the managing member of Fiddler’s Green Partners and president of SAS Construction. Town officials have long said First and Main, which has struggled for much of its five-year existence, should have had a residential component that developers discussed, then moved away from. Stosser’s plans to build a Walmart next to First and Main after winning a rezoning that did not say what store would be located at the site prompted a several-year legal struggle that the town finally won in a Virginia Supreme Court decision.
Cowan responded that the town’s zoning and conditional use requirements set a fairly narrow range of what will be allowed at the old middle school site.
Town Planning Director Anne McClung agreed. The town’s decision on the rezoning request will come down to “Are you comfortable with that level of choice?” she said.
About 35 people, including the town’s mayor and vice mayor, and Stosser, attended Monday’s session. A second public input meeting is scheduled for May 2. The planning commission will hold a public hearing on the request in June. The town council has not scheduled a hearing or vote on the rezoning, but likely will act in July if the request stays on the town’s usual schedule, McClung said.
The fate of the 20-acre, former middle school site on South Main Street has been debated for a decade. The Montgomery County School Board and Board of Supervisors negotiated an arrangement to declare the property as surplus and put it up for sale, then the supervisors and the town council tried to decide the best use of the land.
The county owns most of the property and hopes to raise $5.6 million from its sale to help pay for school expenses. The town controls the site’s zoning, and owns a bit of it, and wants to steer development toward a vision of commercial use and non student housing that town officials consider key to the future of downtown.
Fiddler’s Green Partners has turned in a plan that includes a hotel, restaurant, fitness center, offices and apartments. But the developer cautions that much could change depending on what eventual tenants want. Last month, Stosser said the purchase price might be renegotiated with the county. Questioned about that during Monday’s meeting, Cowan said the final price would depend on what tenants the developer eventually attracts to the project, and the willingness of buyer and seller to reach agreement.
Cowan was also quizzed about Fiddler’s Green Partners’ request for a 25-year rebate on local taxes on Midtown Village, a measure that town and county officials say they do not support. Cowan said that about 40 percent of the development would be deeded to public use in the form of streets, parks and open space, and that some amount of public funds would be needed to help pay for this.
Greg Tew , director of professional and industry relations at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Design, told Cowan that the Midtown Village plans struck him as disconnected from Blacksburg’s existing downtown.
“I’m really struggling to see how this makes our town better,” Tew said. “What we basically have here is a large apartment complex surrounded by parking lots, with a couple highway buildings. … It kind of feels like the type of development you’d see if you took any exit off Interstate 81.”
Cowan said he respectfully disagreed. “I think there’s a lot of public space in there,” he said.
Cowan had seemed to anticipate criticism in his opening remarks, telling the audience, “This is a big project. … We have a large number of moving pieces that need to be worked out.”
“All that you see before you is kind of the starting place,” Cowan said.
McClung urged residents to examine the Midtown Village proposal at the town planning office at 400 S. Main St. or online at www.blacksburg.gov/obms, and to send their comments to town staff.
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