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Plaza tenants, residents say they will fight redevelopment

POSTED: May 12, 2014 12:13 a.m.

Gainesville residents who oppose plans to redevelop the Lanier Plaza shopping center on Thompson Bridge Road have vowed to continue their fight, insisting they will deploy new tactics to gain support for their cause.

“We have not given up,” said Linda Roseberry, a resident of the adjacent Honeysuckle Hills neighborhood.

Whether at the county or municipal level, local zoning issues routinely generate the biggest outpouring of community feedback. They often take on a life of their own, becoming a microcosm of what’s happening across Hall County and the nation as growth begets growth.

Polestar, LLC, a subsidiary of the Tennessee-based developer Hutton, plans to demolish the existing shopping center and build a 42,000-square-foot grocery store and an accompanying 12-pump fueling station.

Built in 1983, part of the shopping center had been zoned for residential use, something city planning officials called a mistake. They added that a rezoning, necessary for the redevelopment to proceed as proposed, would make the property conform to its intended commercial use.

Dozens of residents turned out at the City Council meeting last week to voice their concerns with the proposed redevelopment. Quality of life issues such as traffic and environmental impacts, the loss of small businesses in the center and the prospect of declining property values were among the many issues cited.

But council members dismissed most of these concerns and talked instead about the benefits they saw in the redevelopment, including opportunities to clean up polluted nearby creeks that flow into Lake Lanier.

Moreover, several council members said that while increased traffic will have to be dealt with, the growth is likely inevitable. A red light at Virginia Avenue could help traffic flow they said, even as residents wondered if the road would soon turn into a cut-through to Riverside Drive, providing a bypass to Thompson Bridge’s most congested stretch.

Because the Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board had voted 4-2 on April 22 to recommend denial of the rezoning, residents were cautiously optimistic the City Council would also heed their concerns.

But the council ultimately OK’d the rezoning, leaving few avenues of recourse available to opponents of the redevelopment.

Several residents have told The Times they will voice their objections once more when the City Council meets for a second reading of the rezoning next week. But that’s not likely going to be enough to change minds.

So now residents have begun to question the integrity of the council’s vote and have all but declared a referendum on Wal-Mart, the long-speculated and presumed company behind the redevelopment.

Polestar has repeatedly declined to name its client, but even city officials have publicly stated that they believe it is Wal-Mart.

“My response to this whole situation has more to do with ethics than business,” Scott Fugate, who lives near Lanier Plaza, said in an email. “I am furious with the way the local tenants were kept in the dark, and the way the community has been deceived by this business that dare not state its name.”

The proposed redevelopment got off to inauspicious start when a “fast-track” process was approved, pushing up the timeline for approval of the rezoning. It’s the first time such a process has been used, city planning officials said.

“The word ‘fast-track’ became a center point of the whole process,” Councilman Sam Couvillon said, adding that it may have given residents the wrong impression about the council’s intentions.

Though he supports the redevelopment plan, Couvillon was the only member to vote against the fast-tracking, which did not reduce the number of public hearings and votes needed for approval.

But opponents remain convinced that the process was corrupted. And part of this suspicion almost certainly stems from the ill will many residents have for Wal-Mart.

“That’s kind of what I thought the first meeting certainly was, was a referendum on (Wal-Mart),” Gainesville Community Development Director Rusty Ligon said.

Fugate and other opponents have taken to social media, calling out local officials and lobbing accusations at Wal-Mart. Indeed, the whole debate has grown a bit testy.

Planning board member Doyle Johnson, one of just two members to support the rezoning, got into a bit of a spat with Fugate on Facebook.

“Many distortions, suggestions of wrong doing and generally less than congenial tones have been used,” Johnson wrote on May 5.

But Fugate countered what Johnson called “misleading” information.

“I do not see this as progress,” Fugate wrote to The Times. “I see this as slash and burn — undercut local businesses and destroy local communities for a profit. That’s the Wal-Mart way. I’m just sad that the City Council is in their pocket.”

But it’s not just residents who have been fighting plans to redevelop Lanier Plaza. The businesses currently operating there — Lanier Laundromat, Sun Spa, United Custom Electronix, El Sombrero Mexican restaurant and Bodyplex Fitness — have supported resident protests, taken to Twitter to rally opposition to their side, and some have even sought a legal remedy.

According to residents, business owners and community leaders, the owner of Lanier Plaza, Lee Najjar, has been less than forthright about plans to sell the property. Many businesses had leases good through the end of the year, but said they were given little notice about coming evictions.

“We certainly don’t think this is a model” for doing business, said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

Many of the businesses at Lanier Plaza are chamber members. Evans said the whole situation “could have been handled better” if the parties involved had communicated more closely.

While attorneys for El Sombrero and Sun Spa have pledged not to give up their fight, other businesses in the shopping center have begun to see the writing on the wall.

On her twitter page dated April 5, Bodyplex owner Jennifer Loggins wrote, “Plse Call Gville City Council-tell them to vote “NO” Wal-Mart. It is not a done deal. Make them listen. Small businesses need ur help.”

But just as the City Council was making its vote on the rezoning last week, Bodyplex announced its merger with Fitness Forum, located in the Publix shopping center on Thompson Bridge.

“We no longer wish to stay and allow our fate to be decided for us,” Loggins wrote in a letter to gym members announcing the merger.

Jeff Rosetti of United Custom Electronix said the store was already scouting new locations. He said he hopes to move the business soon and put the redevelopment ordeal behind him.

Robert Tyner said he’d like to keep Lanier Laundromat open, but he’s resigned to closing up shop and consolidating his resources with two other coin laundry facilities he operates in Gainesville.

For its part, developers said the project could have a $10 million to $12 million economic impact on the city, raising the property value of Lanier Plaza, which is about $1.6 million according to county property tax records, to more than $6 million.

In a few years, it’s possible the redevelopment will spur additional growth along Thompson Bridge Road.

Ligon said many properties north of Lanier Plaza are zoned for neighborhood business and office.

Indeed, the future of the Gainesville thoroughfare appears to be moving away from its residential roots toward more limited commercial uses. And that likely portends of a new wave of protests from residents in the area.


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