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Apartments get planners’ vote, but complaints from neighbors / April 09, 2018
A plan to renovate a shuttered North Main Street medical clinic to serve as market-rate apartments has won the backing of the South Boston Planning Commission, but the project has run into stiff opposition from nearby residents who spoke out at a public hearing last week.

After planners voted 3-1 in favor of a zoning change Wednesday night, the project is set to come up again at tonight’s meeting of South Boston Town Council. A second public hearing is on the agenda; the meeting starts at 7 p.m.

The building’s owner, Howard B. Powell Sr., wants to renovate the 20,000-foot building at 1129 North Main Street. Built in 1977, the former medical clinic would be renovated to accommodate 15 one- and two-bedroom apartments, with market-rate rents starting at $700.

South Boston homebuilder and developer Glenn Garrett, the project contractor, provided town planners with a summary of his plans for the building, along with hand-drawn sketches of the renovated exterior of the building.

Town Manager Tom Raab took note of similarities between the North Main project and New Brick Exchange Apartments, a converted tobacco warehouse that offers 27 market-rate bedroom apartments with rents between $800-$1200 a month. New Brick Exchange reached full occupancy within six months of opening, said Raab.

Likewise, the Halifax Lofts apartment project at the old Halifax Elementary School saw 30 units go on the market last summer and get snapped by the end of January, said Raab. The Tultex apartments, scheduled to open July or August, already has a waiting list.

But residents nearby the site were not placated as they spoke at Wednesday’s meeting of planners. John Greenbacker, who lives across the street on North Main, said that without presenting detailed plans to go with the rezoning request, “They [Powell and Garrett] want us to buy a pig in a poke.”

Greenbacker also expressed concern that the area might already be saturated with apartment housing. He spoke in opposition along with neighborhood residents Carol Foster, Sarah Helen Greenbacker, David Smith, and Bill and Sarah Boelte.

Foster said she had already lost $190,000 on the sale of a house on Washington Avenue due to sagging real estate values, and does not want to see values diminish further due to the introduction of apartment complexes in the primarily single-family home neighborhood.

Sarah Helen Greenbacker, speaking from her experience renting apartments, felt strongly that there was no way the market could or would support apartments renting at $700 or more. Further, she told the planners that approving the zoning change would “destroy the value of my home.

“It was a mistake 20-30 years ago to change the zoning to business district … and that building (1129 N. Main) should never have been allowed to be built.

“The council should admit its mistake and correct it instead of trying to take something that was a mistake, and make it slightly less of a mistake,” she said.

Bill Boelte worried about future developers who will want to take advantage of the new zoning, and change the character of the neighborhood. Sarah Boelte raised concerns about the security of women who were forced to park in the back of the building.

The request before planners Wednesday was to “down-zone” the site from “from a B-1 Neighborhood Commercial District, to an R-4 High Density Residential District. Planning Commission member Sharon Harris voted no.

Planners Robert Hughes and Ronnie W. Pate expressed a need for detailed plans to make an informed decision on the request, but Zoning Administrator Hope Cole explained that such plans are not required at this stage of the process.

Garrett added that the $10,000 cost of developing detailed plans is not one he would be willing to undertake without the zoning approval.

Chairman George Leonard called for a vote on the matter, but the planners initially appeared reluctant to do so. In response to a question about tabling the discussion, Cole said that was not one of the options.

After explaining once more that a vote had to be taken, Pate offered a motion to recommend approval of the zoning change to Town Council. Hughes agreed to second the motion and the vote was taken.

Since then, opponents have been circulating a petition against the project to present to Town Council.

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