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Votes

Proposal Raises More Than Roof

Residents question process as well as impact.

A proposal to convert an old warehouse into an eight-unit condominium in the Parker-Gray Historic District, that received City Council approval at its June legislative meeting, brought forth objections to reduce parking and architectural changes. The project triggered charges of conflict of interest and favoritism.

Known as "Cromley Lofts, LLC," the application considered by the Planning Commission at its June 7 meeting proposed to convert a 1910 masonry warehouse building at 1210 Queen St. to eight residential condominium units. It also sought relief from providing any parking spaces.

As noted in Planning and Zoning Department staff's report to the commission, "Under the zoning ordinance requirements, the conversion of the building from commercial use to eight residential condominium units requires the applicant to provide 14 [parking] spaces." That would normally be increased to 16 spaces due to the customary requirement of adding "an additional 15 percent" for visitor spaces.

Staff also stated, "Because the property is located within the Central Business District any commercial use of the property ... would not require the provision of any parking." Parking comes into play only when the use changes from commercial to residential.

Residents in the immediate neighborhood of the building objected to the developer's request for relief from the parking requirement. That was exacerbated by what they perceived as a conflict of interest on the part of the applicant and their concern that "favoritism" was being shown due to the applicant's previous position in the planning, zoning, historic preservation process.

That applicant in this case is William Cromley, sole member of Cromley Lofts, LLC, a Virginia limited liability company. He also was chairman, until May 6, of the Parker Gray Historic District Board of Architectural Review.

DURING HIS CHAIRMANSHIP, the conversion of 1210 Queen St. was proposed by another developer, John and Thomas Rust, in August 2004. As part of their contract to buy the property, the Rust brothers also sought relief from the parking requirements.

On Aug. 4, 2004, the Rusts sent a letter to residents in the immediate vicinity of the property seeking their input on the proposal. They received a negative response dated Aug. 12, 2004.

"Your proposal would in one fell swoop, double the population of the block. It would create a multi-family dwelling in the midst of .... a block ... of single family homes. The proposal therefore is not in keeping with the guiding tenets inherent to the Parker-Gray Historic District," the residents wrote. A copy of that response was sent to Eileen Fogarty, director, Planning and Zoning Department.

According to a letter written to City Manager James K. Hartmann dated March 23, 2005, again signed by a variety of area residents, they stated, "we were urged in our opposition efforts [to the Rusts' proposal] by Mr. William Cromley."

They further explained to Hartmann, "Mr. Cromley asserted that several years ago he himself considered purchasing 1210 Queen Street with the intention to redevelop it into eight residential units, but dropped the idea when he realized there would apparently be no way to provide the required parking. Mr. Cromley was most helpful in suggesting potential vehicles to oppose the Rusts' plan."

Explaining that their letter to the Rusts was "a direct result of those conversations [with Cromley]," the residents stated, "Incredibly in the Fall of 2004, Mr. Cromley made us aware that he now intended to purchase the building, and to pursue the very same basic plan ...."

The letter to Hartmann further noted that a Nov. 22, 2004 letter was sent to Fogarty by Daniel K. Koslov, a Queen Street resident, raising "palpable conflict of interest issues inherent in Mr. Cromley's past and present actions."

It also requested his "personal intervention to ensure disapproval of this proposal." They stated, "We are writing to you ... because neither the Department of Planning and Zoning, nor the City Attorney has responded to our previous communications on this matter."

In his response one month later, April 25, 2005, Hartmann stated, he had discussed the matter with Planning and Zoning and the City Attorney's Office. "The City Attorney's office confirms that the conflict of interest rules in Virginia allow a member of a city board to be an applicant before his own board, as long as he does not participate in the consideration of the case or advocate on its behalf in any manner with the board or community," Hartmann wrote.

"In addition, let me assure you, as Ms. Fogarty assures me, even though Mr. Cromley may proceed with this project, his status as a board chairman does not give him any special treatment as an applicant," Hartmann stated. Cromley's letter of resignation from BAR dated May 6 noted it was "effective immediately," according to Rose Williams Boyd, director, Citizens Assistance, the city agency that oversees boards and commissions and which she also serves as executive secretary.

HARTMANN'S RESPONSE brought forth another letter from the 1200 block Queen Street residents dated May 13, 2005. They stated, referring to the opinion of the City Attorney's office, "With respect to the conflict of interest issue ... your 25 April 2005 response unfortunately exacerbates rather than ameliorates our concern."

Their primary disagreement focused on the issue of advocating with the community on behalf of the proposed project. They cited three instances were, in their opinion, Cromley advocated "with the community ... While serving in his capacity of Chairman of the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review." They were:

1. "Visited residents in their homes and lobbied them to support the proposal.

2. "Solicited and received signatures from residents on letters or petitions supporting his proposal.

3. "Attended the April meeting of the Inner City Civic Association [a community sponsored meeting], delivered a formal presentation of his proposal, and participated in the voting process regarding it."

They also reminded Hartmann that he "and other city officials" had attended the April civic association meeting and "were present at the meeting while this occurred." They noted "the Inner City Civic Association does not represent the views held by the signatories" and "does not represent the views of the overwhelming majority of the residents of the 1200 Block of Queen Street ..."

CROMLEY LOFTS came before Parker-Gray BAR on May 25 based on two aspects of the proposal:

* Increasing the height of the building from 27 feet to 32 feet by adding what is known as a "Monitor" addition; and

* Window replacements and additions.

Both were recommended for approval by BAR to City Council. That decision was then appealed to City Council which upheld BAR's recommendation.

Prior to council hearing the BAR appeal, the Planning Commission considered Cromley's proposal at their June 7 meeting. It was also based on two factors:

* A request for a Special use Permit to increase the overall floor area ratio; and

* Elimination of the parking requirement for residential use.

As stated by attorney Duncan Blair, representing Cromley Lofts, LLC, during Planning Commission's public hearing, "In reality this is a parking exemption extension. If it remained commercial there would be no parking requirement."

On the parking issue, Jeffrey Farmer, division chief, Planning and Zoning Department, said, "We couldn't find alternative parking off site. But, when the residents buy these units they will only be eligible for one street parking permit per unit."

Leslie Zupan, a resident of the 1300 block of Queen Street, questioned the enforceability of such an arrangement. "This compromise about one permit per unit as proposed by city staff is not enforceable. The city's computer system can't control it," she said.

Teri Du Bois Webster, a resident of the 1200 block of Princess Street, in a letter to the commission pointed out, "The Prescott and The Monarch [projects already approved within two blocks of Cromley Lofts site] will bring 500 new cars to the neighborhood."

She also questioned the conclusions of a parking study commissioned by the developer. In that report consultants, Gorove/Slade Associates, Inc., stated, "Based on the field information collected and the analysis of future conditions it was determined that the future supply of parking would be in excess of the future parking demand and there would be a parking surplus."

TESTIFYING FOR "the majority of the residents of the 1200 block of Queen Street," Fran Koslov said, "We are not opposed in principle to the redevelopment of this building. It is only the sheer number of units in the proposal — eight with no parking provided — that we believe is beyond what neighbors should be asked to accept."

Koslov pointed out, "The city's own Strategic Plan is specific in mandating that development should not compromise either the existing character or scale" of the neighborhoods in which it occurs. "We believe that creating a large, multi-family dwelling among our single-family homes, would dramatically change the character of our block. Similarly ... the proposal is not in keeping with the scale of our block."

She also noted the difference in parking uses by commercial and residential development. "We believe that parking associated with commercial use would actually present fewer adverse impacts to current residents," Koslov said. She based that point on commercial parking taking place primarily during the day thereby freeing up the spaces for residents at night.

Koslov's testimony proposed the project be downscaled to four units instead of the planned eight and that each be "significantly larger" in order to make it financially viable for the developer. This would make the proposal "significantly more favorable to current residents," she said.

Along with the application, Blair submitted more than 100 letters supporting the project from residents throughout the adjacent area. Twelve of those were from residents in the 1200 block of Queen Street. Each letter was addressed to Eric Wagner, Planning Commission chairman, and were identical in wording.

One of those was from Philip Moffat of the 500 block of North Columbus Street. He also testified in support at the hearing.

"Our civic association voted 17 to 3 in approval of this project. We have thoroughly reviewed the plan and agree this is an innovative solution," Moffat said.

One of the letters was signed by Melissa Luby who also testified before the Planning Commission in favor of Cromley's proposal. Her husband James Luby, a member of Parker-Gray BAR, supported Cromley's proposal when it came before that body. The only dissenting vote at that Parker-Gray BAR meeting, following Cromley's resignation, came from Douglas Meick.

J. Glenn Hopkins, president, Hopkins House, submitted the one non-form letter in support. In it, Hopkins acknowledged he based his support on the understanding the proposed development will "include improvements to the adjacent Helen Miller Park" and "that a contribution will be made to the affordable housing fund."

Immediately prior to commissioners expressing their assessments of the proposal, they were told by Poul Hertel, during his testimony, "This has raised serious issues about how we approach planning." Commissioner Jesse Jennings noted there had been 22 speakers in favor of the proposal and only eight against.

Vice Chairman John Komoroske said, "I like the way this looks. It is smart growth and I intend to support it." That was echoed by Commissioner Donna Fossum. "I'm very excited about this project," she said prior moving its approval. It passed unanimously.