By Jeff Keeling and Scott Robertson
A controversial and long-delayed deal to put a five-building apartment complex on the former General Mills and Mize Farm and Garden properties between East Tennessee State University and downtown is dead.
Multiple sources confirmed today that Evolve Development of North Carolina has terminated its purchase contract with the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, owner of the 4.8-acre General Mills property at West Walnut and Sevier streets. First announced in late 2013, Evolve’s $18 million plan has faced numerous zoning and legal hurdles but appeared to have overcome those with the recent dismissal of lawsuits. Last spring, Mize closed its store adjacent to the mill property in anticipation that 1.8-acre tract also would be included in the project.
Gary Mabrey, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce serving Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County, told jcnewsandneighbor.com the chamber has received notification Evolve is withdrawing from the project, but that, the parties still must formalize the dissolution of the contract, and that the chamber would have no formal statement until that time.
The project faced fierce opposition from some nearby business owners and some residents of the adjacent Tree Streets, who with others opposed the rezonings and variances sought by Evolve principal Scott Austin. Reasons for opposition varied, and even shifted some over time. They included opposition to a large “rent-by-the-room” student apartment complex, though Evolve representatives said the apartments would be marketed broadly, as well as opposition to the demolition of what some deemed as an important historic structure worth saving. The mill’s original structures were built in 1909.
The Johnson City Commission split 3-2 in favor of a crucial rezoning in March 2014. Following additional findings in favor of Austin, some opponents turned to the courts, and as the situation played out the contract with the Chamber Foundation was extended several times.
Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita was one of the two “no” votes when the property was rezoned from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business). He said an initial Evolve plan that only used the mill property and had interior parking surrounded by four buildings had been something he could accept, though he thought it wasn’t ideal.
The later plan required a variance for parking that would be much more visible: “The gateway to our downtown was going to be a large department store type parking lot and I didn’t think that was best,” Tomita said.
“We went through this entire painful exercise and we’re right back where we started,” Tomita said, referring to months of discussion and differing opinions during which, he said, “relationships were strained. In that respect I’m disappointed.”
Tomita added, however, that in his belief the overall viability of downtown as a location for development has improved significantly since the Evolve project was first proposed.
“I am looking forward to working with the Chamber and any future potential buyers there,” Tomita said. “I think that’s an important spot. I still believe mixed use (including some commercial) is the best use. Let’s figure out how to do what’s best for the community, and I think we’ll have those options before us very soon.”
Updates on this breaking story will be available at jcnewsandneighbor.com.