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Update: Johnson City Mayor now undecided on General Mills apartment plan

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The historic General Mills property remains on track to be demolished and replaced with apartments. The historic General Mills property remains on track to be demolished and replaced with apartments.
JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) - Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin voted in favor of a rezoning request for the historic General Mills property Thursday night, in effect helping keep alive a controversial plan to renovate the critical piece of downtown property.

But he's letting everyone know that, when the final vote is taken in March, there's a chance he could vote no.

"What concerns me is that now we're seeing a project that the developer had indicated directly that he's going to have some rent by the room capabilities, and he's also going to have a service to help people identify roommates," Mayor Van Brocklin told News Channel 11.   "That brings in a mix of people that's a little bit different, people with less money, who are less likely to support what we're trying to accomplish."

The Thursday night vote passed 3-2 on second reading.  That means a "no" vote by Mayor Van Brocklin could kill the deal by stopping the needed zoning change.

"I hope that we will have some additional conversation with the developer between now and the third reading," the Mayor said.  "And from that will come either greater or lesser comfort and the decision will be based upon that."

Below are earlier reports on this story.

A commission meeting that lasted long in to Thursday night covered some hot button issues in the Johnson City community.

One of the hot topics was what to do with the General Mills property.

Dozens of people who live in the tree streets that neighbor the property voiced their concerns Thursday night about the proposed plan of developing the property.

Back and forth debate lasted for hours but finally the vote to build an apartment complex on the property won in a 3 to 2 vote.

Originally, neighbors say they were under the impression the potential developer, Evolve Development, would be tearing down the property and building apartments geared toward young professionals.

But now, because the developer said rooms will be rented on a room by room basis, neighbors say they think the new target demographic is college students, and they say that's exactly what they don't want.

"I have an investment in the safety of my children and my property value, and those are some reasons why I care what goes there," Jodi Jones, who lives in the Tree Streets, said.

Jodi Jones has lived in the neighborhood for almost eight years.

"It's an important street and that piece of property is a big chunk of that street, so just rushing in and putting something down, just really at the bottom doesn't quite fit with what we were all thinking," Jones said.

"When we looked at the project and looked at what they'd be proposing, it is student housing, and if you rent by the room, or have the ability to rent by the room that's definitely a model for student housing," Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita said.

City Manager Pete Peterson said the proposed housing would be a people generator for downtown, but Jones said it would be the wrong kind of people.

"Students are not notoriously people that have all kinds of money to put in to nicer restaurants or nicer grocery stores or places like that," Jones said.

"I don't believe that student housing is the proper use for that very key piece of property, I think mixed use, mixed residential with some commercial works much better," Tomita said.

Tomita said it will take more time to attract developers who would be interested in that kind of building, but Jones said it would be worth the wait.

"I think we'd all rather just look at the mill for a little bit longer, it's not hurting anybody, and it's quiet, and it doesn't cause any traffic," Jones said.

Thursday was the second of three readings on an ordinance to rezone this property from a business zone to a residential zone.

The proposed development would bring five new buildings and 216 apartments. The final reading of the ordinance will be at the next commission meeting in March.

For the second time, Johnson City Commissioners approved a plan to change zoning and make way for the construction of an apartment complex at the General Mills property, a six acre tract of land that fronts State of Franklin Road and Walnut Street downtown.

Dozens of concerned homeowners asked the Board of Commissioners to keep zoning as it is, requiring retail use on the first floor of any development.  Many told the Board they worry Evolve Development's plan for apartments - some room by room rentals - will have a negative impact on the nearby Historic Tree Street community.

Here's a previous story on the controversy.  http://bit.ly/1cw1vwW

Commissioners listened for hours as residents listed reasons to reject the plan.    Some like Jeff Banyas reminded the audience that no other developers have offered to buy and improve the dilapidated General Mills property, and Commissioner Clayton Stout admitted frustration with their lack of a viable option to develop the property.

But many in the crowd insisted the critical location required the City to wait for the perfect fit.

"If the something is the wrong thing, it's not better," said Tom Seaton, owner of The Firehouse Restaurant.   "It's just a quicker solution, and I've learned the quickest and easiest solution is not always the best for everybody."   

In the end, Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to approve the re-zoning request.

The matter will come before the Board again for a third and final reading.

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