BRISTOL, Va. — A split Bristol Virginia Planning Commission voted 5-2 Monday to recommend that City Council approve a request to allow an apartment complex to be built within The Falls commercial center.
The vote followed about 45 minutes of discussion over the proposal by Blackwater Resources to construct about 180 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments in six buildings on about nine acres southwest of the traffic circle in the middle of The Falls in the Exit 5 area of the city. Blackwater owns the land, which is designated B-3 general business.
Building the apartments would require the City Council to approve a special-use permit, and it is scheduled to consider the request at the Aug. 10 meeting.
“We think this would create momentum here at The Falls,” John Abernathy, president of Blackwater, told the commission Monday.
Across the country, more and more developments feature a mixture of uses, including charter schools, offices, medical and residential, as the demand for large brick-and-mortar shopping centers continues to diminish, Abernathy said.
“From our perspective, there is a lot of available land left at The Falls for retail development,” he said, noting that Blackwater also owns land adjacent to Hobby Lobby with Lee Highway road frontage.
“We think that is the better parcel for retail development,” Abernathy said.
In response to concerns raised during last week’s public hearing that the complex might be or could become low-income housing, Abernathy said this would not be Section 8 or another form of low-income housing. Renters would pay an as-yet-undetermined market rate, and the company plans to invest about $25 million to construct the apartment complex, which is to include six apartment buildings, a clubhouse/leasing office, parking and other amenities.
An adjacent acre, which adjoins the traffic circle, would remain for commercial development.
Plans show apartment entrances across from the side entrance of Hobby Lobby on Merchant Trace — the former Cabela Drive — and the rear entrance of Aldi off Falls Boulevard.
Blackwater doesn’t know if it would manage the apartment complex or retain a management company, Abernathy said.
A majority of commission members spoke favorably about the project.
“I wish on this lot there was a Costco, a Cheesecake Factory and Macy’s, but I really don’t think they’re beating down the door unless there’s something we don’t know about,” Mayor Anthony Farnum, a member of the commission, said.
Farnum said the city isn’t “giving up” on The Falls, and he expects the apartment complex would both generate momentum and fill a need the city has for apartments.
Commission member Kristie McElheny said she initially opposed the idea, but, after listening to presentations and considering information and feedback, she now supports it.
Commissioners Susan Long and Ed Harlow voted against the recommendation since the land is included within legislation that allows the city to keep 2.8% of state sales taxes generated by businesses operating there rather than the traditional 1%.
That was done because the city borrowed about $50 million in general obligation bonds to finance creation of the development and $34 million in revenue bonds to establish a commercial destination, and the extra sales tax was designated to help repay those long-term debts.
“There is no other opportunity for the city to collect that tax,” Long warned.
Harlow, who served on the City Council that approved The Falls borrowing, said he supports construction of new apartments in the city but is concerned about using land at The Falls.
Interim Director of Community Development Jay Detrick said staff analysis also supports the project.
“The proposal addresses a demonstrated need in Bristol, housing, and could provide a catalyst for future commercial development in the Falls,” Detrick said. “It is expected that the casino and Amazon will create 2,000-plus new jobs in the next two to four years, and without new housing in Bristol, those who come to the area will choose to live outside of the city.”
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