Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Update on last night's important Salemtown meeting with 3 developers

Monday night's monthly Salemtown Neighbors business meeting was enlightening if for no other reason than to witness the contrast between responsible developers and detached developers.

I should start off by clarifying and correcting information in yesterday's post announcing the developers' appearance in our community: only two of the proposals seek to rezone for Specific Plans. The third, which did not have any information on yesterday is not seeking any rezoning, but building according to what the zoning currently allows. The zoning allows for medium density with either single or two-family dwellings (as in duplexes).

And I want to start with the non-SP first, precisely because the development team did not have to appear before our association to get feedback on what they have planned for the 1700 block of 4th Av, N., but they appeared anyway in order to keep us informed. Got it? They can build what they want within the parameters set by land development and planning guidelines, but they still chose to seek Salemtown support for their plan.

Their plan for duplexes looks attractive and the elevations they showed appear to fit within the character of the community in my opinion, but what stood out singularly to me was their acknowledgment more than once that the neighborhood has collectively been unhappy with what recently passes for new infill in Salemtown. One of their members, Grant Hammond, mentioned that he wanted to take his group's project in a different direction along the lines of how more responsible developers have treated the association before the recent building wave got started. He expressed openness to continuing to meet with SNNA officers, passing along details and meeting with the association when necessary.

It really was a breath of fresh air, especially because he was not required to commit to any of that.

And we have already seen how developers who do not strive to go beyond what they are merely required to do take advantage of Salemtown.

Speaking of which, Aerial Development also appeared at an SNNA business meeting years after their plan for 1706 4th Av. N. was first introduced (recently delayed due to height details that were inconsistent with Salemtown's conservation overlay). To her credit, Aerial owner Britnie Turner (who thanks to the fawning Tennessean seems to enjoy more of a connection with the Salemtown name than most of us long-time residents do) at least showed up and tried to defend her company. However, her presentation consisted of the same series of defenses that CM Erica Gilmore employed at the September SNNA meeting. She insisted that Aerial relies on Metro Planning to do the communicating with the neighborhood and that her team did everything that they were legally required to do.

Incidentally, Aerial is one of those developers that have been the object of criticism in Salemtown. I have heard from several neighbors who were unhappy about quick tear downs and the disjunction between Aerial's towering roof-top-hot-tub builds and community character. I have also heard from at least one Aerial buyer who is not at all satisfied with the way he has been treated by the developers. Like Mr. Hammond pointed out, there has been criticism of recent developments in Salemtown. My eyes were on Ms. Turner when he said that.

Mr. Hammond's act was a hard one to follow, given that he was not required to contact Salemtown Neighbors and discuss his plan. However, the contrast between his group and Aerial Development could not have been more stark. Ms. Turner could not muster effective damage control to save her life. She did her own company a disservice in continuing to fall back on the line that she did everything the regulations require. She promised in the future she would contact the association president, but the impression I got in chats with other folk after the meeting is that she has a lot to prove to Salemtown going forward if she wants to have a constructive relationship.

There is some confusion over the name of Aerial's project. Metro Planning calls it "4th Avenue Cottages." Aerial presented it last night as "Salemtown Square." That seems to answer the question I asked last July after Salemtown Square websites appeared: where and how would they be? After I blogged in July, the websites (including Facebook and Instagram pages) were taken down. Then the main website came back up in a different form. Then it disappeared again. All links to a free-standing online presence appear to be broken at this point. Aerial's main page says nothing, as I write this, about Salemtown Square. Communication does not seem to be the company's oyster.

There was an offbeat, nearly cringe-worthy moment last night where Ms. Turner spoke pejoratively of another neighborhood Aerial had worked with. An SNNA member asked why, given the loads of money developers take away from sales, they cannot give back to services (like schools) that support the neighborhoods in which they build? Ms. Turner responded that Aerial had made a big donation to a fund at the request of another neighborhood, but then the neighborhood "whined" that it was not the fund they preferred. What an undiplomatic, unnecessary characterization of what another neighborhood did. What is to stop us now from assuming that she goes to other neighborhood meetings and talks about how much we "whine" about expecting developers to communicate with us above and beyond what Metro Planning requires?

Between last night's contrast of responsible developer and uncommunicative developer was the third development team who are proposing a Specific Plan of 7 detached single family homes across properties at 1614 and 1616 4th Av N. While they did not make the same dramatic move that Mr. Hammond's development team did, they still showed better than Aerial since they took the initiative before acquiring these properties to meet with the neighborhood association.

Their SP requires incorporation of community feedback, and I hope that we can make productive recommendations. The properties are currently zoned for commercial use and I stand with those at this point who argue that residential rezoning makes more sense than commercial or mixed-use given that we do not control what kind of businesses would go in if it stayed commercial (the current resident has lived in a trailer on one of the properties for 30 years). The properties sit right behind the Fehr School building, and frankly I would not want to see some types of businesses go in right behind an educational facility, near a residential intersection. Salemtown already has a zoned commercial intersection at Buchanan and 5th Av, N, and that seems quite enough to me, especially as we already rely on Germantown's walkable businesses. I do not see any commercial enterprises clamoring to compete with this proposal for these properties, so what is the point in waiting for commerce that may never materialize? As long as residential plans meet with our expectations, we should move forward.

The 1614/16 team agreed to continue to communicate with our association, especially as plans continue to develop.

Overall, I took last night's meeting with developers as a positive sign that builders are going to be more responsible and communicative going forward. I hope that this trend continues.

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