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Too busy to blog?

Whatever I’ve been up to lately, it’s clear I haven’t been doing much blogging. So what have I been up to? Here’s a partial list.

  • EQAB is about to finalize the first report on Oak Ridge’s progress in implementing the climate action plan and meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals that City Council adopted in 2009 and 2010. The city and the community are on track to meet the first greenhouse gas goals that we adopted for 2015. That’s good news, but the goals for 2015 were modest ones — baby steps toward what needs to be done over the longer term.
  • I’ve been fretting about events surrounding the May 6 county primary election in Anderson County. The way things used to be, our local newspaper would publish profiles of the competing candidates in local elections — so voters could see a factual  report on who was running (at a minimum, the paper would provide basic facts like name, address, age, and occupation). Apparently those days are over — it looks like our local newspaper is no longer attempting to provide election guides. (I hope I’m wrong on that — but since early voting is almost over, a guide published now would be almost too late.) It used to be that the League of Women Voters would hold campaign forums where people could hear all of the candidates in an impartial setting, but this year one of the county’s political parties decided to schedule its own “forum” the same evening as the LWV’s forum. It used to be that local candidates tried to deliver positive messages about themselves, rather than publishing attacks at their opponents, but this year we’ve even received attack ads from candidates for judgeships. All in all, I think it’s harder than ever for voters to make good, informed decisions about the election.
  • And I joined a volunteer crew that pulled up garlic mustard in the greenbelt behind the Garden Apartments (now known as the Rolling Hills Apartments). Garlic mustard is an introduced plant from Europe that’s an invasive weed in this area — it threatens to out-compete our woodland spring wildflowers. It’s not common around this areas, but there’s a population behind the Garden Apartments, in an area that has a pretty amazing collection of spring wildflowers. After several years of volunteer effort, we just might manage to eradicate this weed.

Part of Quincy Avenue to close next week

A press release from the City of Oak Ridge Public Works Department announces that Quincy Avenue between South Purdue Avenue and South
Illinois Avenue (State Route 62) will be closing on Friday, April 27, 2012, to allow construction of the Woodland Town Center commercial development, whose first tenants will be Panera Bread (relocated from its current site in Oak Ridge) and Aubrey’s Restaurant. Project construction will begin during the week of
April 23rd.

The date of the street closure is tentative, subject to inclement weather that could cause a delay. The street will be closed for approximately 4-5 months until a new street is constructed as part of the Woodland Town Center development.

The press release says “Motorists are requested to avoid the area. Motorists that use Quincy Avenue to access the Woodland neighborhood are requested to use alternate routes of travel.” I expect that most people who have used Quincy to get into the neighborhood will instead take either Rutgers Avenue to Manhattan Avenue or Lafayette Drive to Manchester Road.


TIF for Woodland Town Center?

People are talking — and asking me lots of good questions — about the proposed Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) plan for the development of Woodland Town Center on South Illinois Avenue. I have some questions, too, but I can share some information and thoughts.

Decisions are coming up fast: The Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board holds a public hearing Monday (12/5) at 4 pm (not my notion of an ideal time for a public hearing) at the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce. Approval also is needed from both Oak Ridge City Council and Anderson County Commission. City Council addresses it on Monday, December 12 (7 pm at city hall) and County Commission expects to vote on Monday the 19th.

If approved, this will be Oak Ridge’s first TIF. A TIF is a development incentive, similar to a property tax abatement, but with features and restriction that (in my opinion) make it a better deal for the public than the tax abatements that Oak Ridge has used in the past. The idea is that the increased property tax collections resulting from a new development are designated to pay for public improvements to be built in the development area. The city (through the Industrial Development Board) would borrow money to construct improvements in the development area, and any increased property tax revenue from a defined TIF district would be dedicated to paying off that loan. When the public improvements are fully paid for, the property taxes go into the public coffers. As with a tax abatement, there are clear benefits to the developer.  Unlike a tax abatement, there is an explicit contract-type arrangement that sets out both the costs of the TIF and the benefits the community is supposed to derive from it. Also, Tennessee law requires that any TIF  be specifically approved by the governing bodies of the affected local governments (in this case, both city and county) whose property taxes would be dedicated to the TIF. (In contrast a city could establish a tax abatement that affects both city and county property tax without any county say-so — or a county could do that to a city.) I see TIFs as preferable to tax abatements because of greater transparency, the requirement for a public purpose, the clear definition of public costs and public benefits, and the requirement for approval by the elected officials of the affected local governments. Also, they don’t put property owners in the ticklish position of having to deed their property to an IDB (notably, the developers of the Holiday Inn Express that’s now under construction had to relinquish the abatement it had negotiated because it was preventing them from getting a needed loan).

This proposed Woodland Town Center development, between South Illinois Avenue and South Purdue Avenue, across from the former Dean Stallings car dealership, was approved and rezoned as a planned unit development a couple of years ago. Although it’s on the edge of the Woodland residential neighborhood, residents seemed pretty comfortable with the proposal because the developers have been sensitive to their concerns. The developers acquired several properties and took down the houses on them, but the development stalled with the bad economy. Now Panera Bread wants to move there in order to have a bigger location and more parking (Panera is very popular in Oak Ridge) and Aubrey’s Restaurant wants to establish an Oak Ridge location. Those two restaurants would occupy about half of the buildable land in the planned Woodland Town Center area. The TIF district would include the entire Woodland Town Center area plus some nearby properties along South Purdue and the former Dean Stallings dealership.

As people  have read in the newspapers, the public improvements to be funded by the TIF are removing the part of Quincy Avenue between S. Illinois and S. Purdue, building a new road between Illinois and Purdue that would connect up with Phillips Lane (a short cul-de-sac) on the north side of Purdue, installing a new stoplight on Illinois at the intersection with the new road (which would serve as the entrance to Woodland Town Center), storm drainage improvements, and some electric infrastructure. These clearly benefit the development, but I also see some direct benefits for the public at large. The road relocation should mostly eliminate the use of Quincy Avenue as a fast cut-through across the Woodland neighborhood — a benefit to that neighborhood. The storm drainage improvements are needed to correct chronic flooding that affects residents on South Purdue near Quincy. Additionally, the whole package benefits all of us by helping to ensure a higher-quality development than we might see if the developer and the restaurants had to foot the whole bill for the infrastructure supporting their project. I’ve heard from residents who are dismayed by the idea of another stoplight; it bothers me, too, but I’m afraid that it’s inevitable.  I keep hoping for an “intelligent system” to control the series of stoplights on South Illinois to help traffic flow more smoothly — not only to reduce drive aggravation, but also to make it easier for people to get to these businesses.

City staff has estimated the overall TIF cost at $605,000, and they estimate that combined city and county property tax collections would increase by $46,000 per year (split 50-50 between city and county, including $6,000 in tax on “personal property” of the businesses) as a result of the two restaurants, which means it could take 20 years to pay off the TIF.

People ask me if a 20-year payoff is a good deal for the city and county. I can’t say for sure because I can’t predict the future, but I’d be surprised if it took nearly the full 20 years to pay this off. Staff estimates $4 million private investment in the project. If that full investment got reflected in the tax assessor’s appraisal (it probably won’t), I guesstimate that it would yield twice as much property tax as they are projecting, so I am pretty sure that staff is lowballing their estimate of taxes in order to be on the safe side. Furthermore, if the rest of Woodland Town Center gets built or there’s new development on the Dean Stallings site, property tax from those projects would help pay off the TIF faster.

Staff also estimates an additional $165,000 in “direct and indirect” local sales taxes to city and county each year, over and above what Panera collects  now, which sounds like a valuable thing for the city ‘s coffers. I’m not entirely clear, owever, on how much of that sales tax goes to city vs. county vs. schools, and I don’t know what staff assumed to come up with that number. I want to know more about what they are assuming, because I want to make sure it makes sense.

Other questions I’m hearing:

* Why involve the IDB? It’s my understanding that state law authorizes IDBs to “do” TIFs, but they aren’t allowed for city governments, but I want to verify this.

* What risk do the IDB and city face if tax collections aren’t high enough to pay the TIF bills? I’m not sure — this depends on the form of the security that must be pledged to obtain the loan. Attorney Mark Mamantov explained TIFs to City Council a few months back; if I remember correctly, he indicated that the lender assumes most of the business risk on these deals.

* Why can’t the city insist that these restaurants locate in some of the vacant buildings we have here in town? In general, a government can’t tell businesses where to locate (at least not in the United States) — and it does seem that the two restaurants were attracted to this particular site by the developers’ conceptual plans for the project.

* What will happen to the building where Panera is now? I hope it will be reoccupied quickly. Panera has done very well there, so the location should be attractive to another eatery.

* How will this affect the value of other property nearby? The conventional wisdom is that this project should boost the value of unoccupied commercial property close by. Interestingly, I’m told that it’s also likely to increase the property-tax assessments of other commercial property. I hope it doesn’t inflate the already-too-high asking prices of some of the properties that are currently being offered for sale or lease — excessive prices seem to be one reason why some sites in town are chronically empty. I’m told that it should not affect the tax assessments for residentially zoned property in Woodland. However, there may be some adverse effect on value of the houses closest to the development. That adverse effect can be minimized if the developer does a good job of screening the property to reduce its effect on the neighbors — and for some residents, being close to attractive commercial businesses is a plus.

* Why is the Dean Stallings property part of the TIF district? The new stoplight would improve access to the Dean Stallings property, and could even allow development of a road to connect to undeveloped land behind it.  Because the Dean Stallings property could directly benefit from the TIF improvements, any increased tax revenue from its future use is legally eligible for use in paying for those improvements.

* If the project pays off early, can the tax revenue from the TIF district be used on another project in the district instead of being added to city and county funds? I don’t believe revenues could be diverted to new uses without approval of a new TIF, but this is something I need to know more about.

*Doesn’t subsidizing these two restaurants give them an unfair  advantage over existing local competitors? Maybe… The restaurants will not directly benefit from the TIF improvements, as those improvements will only build the kind of infrastructure every business needs. In general, however, locally owned restaurants (which I generally prefer over chains) are at a disadvantage compared with chains, as the chains (even a fairly local chain like Aubrey’s) have access to more management know-how, as well as high-visibility advertising that builds brand awareness. However, the conventional wisdom says that when there are several restaurants located in the same area, they all benefit. I believe that — if the restaurant where I wanted to eat has a long line or is unexpectedly closed, I like knowing that there are other good options nearby. More restaurants in Oak Ridge increases the chance that people will choose to dine here, particularly in the evening.

* Aren’t TIFs supposed to be used to help with development of brownfields, low-income areas, and urban redevelopment areas? It is true that TIFs were originally conceived (this was decades ago) as a way to help facilitate development or redevelopment of areas that could be described as “social challenges”. The concept has been adapted for other situations over the years, so that’s no longer true. Also, the TIF rules vary a lot from state to state.  In the future, I think that Oak Ridge could use TIF arrangements to help make good things happen in older commercial neighborhoods like Grove Center and Jackson Square.

* How will this affect the “City Center” (former mall) property? I can’t say, but I think this development is close enough to that property that the City Center would share in the general benefits to local business that are expected to result from this new development.

* Why would the City subsidize restaurants, since this kind of business that doesn’t generate high-paying jobs? It is true that the 100-plus jobs expected to be generated by this development are mostly fairly low on the pay scale, but job-generation is not the only purpose of economic development. Retail centers are important to residents and visitors,  the sales taxes they generate are an important source of local revenues, and there are plenty of people who would be happy to get those jobs.  Also, comparative statistics indicate that Oak Ridge is unusually well supplied with good-paying “primary jobs”, but it lags in offering the kinds of retail opportunities and eating-and-drinking opportunities that help convince well-paid workers and their families to live in a community. Most of the people I talk with would like the city to have more of these kinds of businesses.

What questions have a missed? What else should I be thinking about? (Please comment below!)


Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .


Time to “wait and see” on that hotel proposal for Woodland

On Thursday the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission unanimously approved rezoning for that proposed hotel on the edge of Woodland (see my earlier comments at http://ellensmith.org/blog/?p=53), along with several variances, including some reductions in required setbacks from adjacent properties.

City Council will soon hear the proposal to rezone the property (from single-family residential to office, with a PUD) and amend the city’s land use plan to change this site’s designation from residential to commercial. Unlike conventional zoning, approval of a PUD means that the City is approving not only the land use but also a specific development plan, including building placement, parking lot layout, etc. The proposed development would also require City Council approval of driveway access to South Illinois Avenue (right now, the property has access from Potomac Circle, but if the development proposal is approved, that access would be closed). I expect that the Traffic Safety Advisory Board will review the proposal for driveway access before it is presented to City Council.

No Woodland residents spoke up at this Planning Commission meeting, causing newspaper reporters to conclude that the neighbors have withdrawn their opposition. However, the residents I talked with after the meeting say that they are still opposed. They figured that the Planning Commissioners had already made up their minds, so they decided to save their breath for the upcoming City Council meetings on this matter.

I have seen the site drawings, but I have not heard the staff’s and developer’s explanations of the current proposal, and I have not yet had a chance to ask questions. Thus, I still don’t have all of the information I need on this proposal, so my opinions are preliminary.

I believe there is a market for another hotel in Oak Ridge, and I am pleased to see the efforts that this developer has made to accommodate neighborhood concerns, but I have some serious misgivings about the proposal. Fundamentally, the property is not quite big enough for a hotel, so the building and parking areas would be located very close to the neighboring residential properties — too close for my tastes. Indeed, there would be no setback between the parking lot and one of the lot lines, placing the edge of the parking lot just a few feet away from the house next door on Potomac Circle. The hotel would sit farther away from the lot line by the other next-door neighbor house, but that single-story house could be dwarfed by the three-story hotel.

I wonder about construction impacts on the neighborhood, too. Given the small size of the lot relative to the footprint of the building, it is not obvious to me that there is enough space onsite for “laydown” of equipment and materials, and I want to know how construction access and parking would be controlled to limit adverse effects on the residential neighborhood.

Finally, I’m bothered by the proposed highway access — and the precedent it could create for other developers who might seek to build nearby. Traffic flow on South Illinois Avenue has been slowed in recent years by the proliferation of new businesses and their accompanying curb cuts and stoplights, and addition of more left-turning traffic on a wide street would further impede traffic flow and add new safety hazards. Although this curb cut would be directly across from the Outback Steakhouse driveway, it would add to the complexity of an already difficult stretch of road.

It’s “wait and see” time on this proposal. If I had to vote on this tomorrow without additional information, I would have to oppose it, but I have not heard the whole story yet.


Hotel proposal for Woodland (and the South Illinois corridor)

An important local issue that was largely overlooked in the brouhaha over Crestpointe is the controversy over the future of the Woodland neighborhood.

After City Council rejected (appropriately, I think) a proposal for rezoning to allow construction of a 5-story Holiday Inn Express hotel on a pair of residential lots between Potomac Circle and South Illinois Avenue, city planning staff initiated the “South Illinois Corridor Study” (included in the May 21 City Council agenda package) to determine appropriate land uses and development constraints in the event of future proposals for commercial development near South Illinois. The study report contains much good information and makes many excellent points. (For example, “traditional neighborhood development” is identified as an appropriate zoning classification for part of the area. I think that’s sensible, as Woodland is a traditional neighborhood in most senses of that word, but the zoning change would likely destabilize the area.) Woodland residents are understandably nervous about its main thrust, which is an expectation that commercial development will nibble away at the edge of this residential neighborhood. Long-time resident Mary Henderson encapsulated these concerns in a May 17 letter to the editor. The report has not led to actual rezoning (as residents fear), but it could do so.

Now that the Corridor Study is approved, the hotel proposal is back, in revised form. A preliminary concept was unveiled at a Planning Commission work session on Thursday.

The proposal would require several city approvals. Developers expect to bring it back for Planning Commission approval in August. Both Planning Commission and City Council would have to approve a zoning change (from residential to a business or office zone with a planned-unit development plan included in the rezoning). Also, Council would need to approve a change in the city land use plan and a new highway access for the property. The decisions are likely to be difficult.

The 3-story hotel design would have almost as many rooms (68) as the 5-story design proposed earlier, so it would have a larger footprint on the lot. The building would be set close to the lot line adjoining one of the neighboring houses, and the house on the other side of the site would be very close to the parking lot. Some good news is that the building would be no taller than the nearby TNBank building (it could be a little lower depending on roof design). The fact that the lot slopes down from Potomac Circle (South Illinois is about 8 ft lower than Potomac) would further reduce impact on Woodland. Also, the development planners have worked hard to design landscaping to screen the site from neighboring homes and from Potomac Circle. (There would be no vehicle access on Potomac Circle.)

Although it would be physically possible to provide vehicle access by a frontage road connection to the TNBank parking lot, the prospective developer says that TNBank has rejected that possibility, so the developer is proposing a new highway access from South Illinois Ave, directly across from Outback Steakhouse. That access plan is less than ideal — left turns into and out of businesses have often been difficult along that stretch of South Illinois, and new business accesses will only make it more difficult to turn safely there. However, the city cannot deny access to a street from a legal lot. It wasn’t yet clear how sidewalk access would be handled — sidewalk access is important in that area.

Spot zoning is undesirable, but this developer is working hard to accommodate the needs of neighbors, and the development might turn out to be compatible with the existing neighborhood. However, I do not want to have yet another access to South Illinois, and I have concerns about the way this hotel could overwhelm the small houses adjacent to it. These concerns won’t be resolved until we see a more detailed plan. (Stay tuned…)