Latest on Mason Row

I attended last night’s work session where City Council voted 4-3 last for the proposal to proceed to board and commissions review. I am glad that the project will now move forward and give City Staff and the citizen Boards and Commissions more time to dive into the project, instead of delaying again. Based on the schedule outlined by the City Manager, there will be many additional opportunities for public comment. I know many turned out last night at the work session; work sessions don’t allow for public comment. Boards and Commission meetings are open to the public and there will be other opportunities for citizens to voice their opinions at regular City Council meetings before the project proceeds to another vote (currently December timeframe).

Beyond what’s reported in the FCNP article below, I wanted to highlight the other revisions to the project that are important to me and offer my thoughts on what I plan to pay attention to in the coming months. I have been following the iterations of the project and sat in on a neighborhood meeting the developers had with concerned citizens last week – so I’ve seen the progress and changes and am glad to see the project has come a long way.

Key revisions:

1) Changes based on neighborhood feedback – stays below the 85′ height concern, deeper setbacks along Park Ave, removes retail on Park and now includes shorter, townhouse style apartments with garage further set back (47-50′ back), removed loading zone on West, addition of a pedestrian only street from West that separates hotel from the rest of the project (reduces massing and wall effect facing Grove)

2) Road and traffic improvements – re-aligns Park and West intersection for better visibility, improves W&OD trail, adds much needed turn lanes on West, adds pedestrian crossings on Broad with new signalized left turn lane from Broad, undergrounds utilities on Park and West. A notable point from the traffic study – if Mason Row does not happen, due to regional traffic growth beyond FCC, the Broad/West/Grove/Park intersections are expected to degrade. The improvements proposed either maintains the current traffic situation and/or improves it.

That said, there are a few concerns I am paying attention to in the coming months:

1) Number of apartments and therefore, the impact to City services, schools, and capital needs – pending a review by an external consultant the City has hired to vet the financials of the developer and the project, I hope to hear a 3rd party opinion whether the 340 apartments in the current plan are truly needed and if the City should be pushing to lower the residential density. Based on the financial models, even in the high student enrollment scenario – the project is net revenue positive. The models predict the project to generate annual net revenue of $1.3MM-2MM, with “net-net” (compared to what’s currently generated on the parcels) of $1-1.8MM annually. The project includes only 1-2 bedrooms units, meant to attract the young, working professional gap we have in our City demographics. However, I believe we should closely monitor the upcoming Harris Teeter and Tinner Hill developments and use those as additional data points to refine our financial models and estimates on incoming students. We also should be looking holistically at development across the city to ensure the total impact of new residents doesn’t drive more capital needs that aren’t typically accounted for in simple student enrollment figures, and if it does – be able to plan for it and push on the development proffers.

2) Affordable housing – I share some of the concerns expressed by City Council members last night that they would like to see the number of affordable dwelling units (ADUs) meet city policy and past projects. As housing costs continue to grow in the City, I would love to see additional options for our teachers, City staff, small business owners, so they can live close to where they work, and retirees who are on fixed income so we can keep them in our community.

3) Retail plan – one key reason why I am excited about Mason Row is the potential mix of entertainment, dining, and retail options in one place that creates a destination for City and non FCC residents- in the form of a movie theater anchor, a green space/market square that creates an outdoor gathering space for informal or community use, and more retail and dining space than other past projects. We have “mixed use” developments in the City already, but they largely are residential buildings with one or two main commercial options on the ground floor – with no easy connectivity to other developments or enough unique options that attract visitors. I would love to see the Mason Row retail plan vetted in an upcoming EDA meeting and ensure there is a smaller mix of service-oriented retail options (I use yoga studios and dry cleaners too, but we probably have enough options) and see if we get assurances about the number, types, and occupancy of dining and retail. We need a project that creates more options for City residents that is pedestrian/bike-accessible where friends and families want to linger and spend time while also encouraging drivers and non FCC residents flowing through to stop, dine, and shop in City limits.

I’d love to hear from you too.  Are you excited about Mason Row? What are your concerns? What can I help advocate for you?