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Planning Commission opposes making dental office into a restaurant

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission offered little support last week to a property owner trying to change a dental office into a restaurant at the intersection of East Oltorf Street and Rebel Road.


The property at 518 East Oltorf St. has been a dental office since Howard Ramey purchased it in 1964. With a buyer under contract, he is hoping to change the zoning and the neighborhood plan on the lot to make way for a restaurant. Neither the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association (SRCC) nor the Planning Commission support the change.


Noting that there is commercial land use to the east and to the west of the property, and its location on a major arterial road, staff is recommending a less intense zoning than requested. They support Neighborhood Commercial Conditional (LR) over Community Commercial (GR), which is still more intense than the current General Office. SRCC argues that a restaurant in such close proximity to residential properties, and in an area already plagued with parking problems, would be trouble for the area.


The commission voted 6-2 to oppose the change, with Commissioners James Nortey and Richard Hatfield disagreeing and Commissioner Jean Stevens absent.


There is a valid petition already in place, and the SRCC has vowed to gather more signatures. David Swan, who lives close to the property, asked the commission to support the neighborhood plan as-is.                                                                              


“This is not a good restaurant site. It’s true that there are other commercial sites nearby, but those were built to serve that purpose,” said Swan. “This site was used as an office, and that’s what the plan determined was a good use for it.”


“Having a good plan has got a lot of advantages. It helps developers, it helps property owners. They know what’s going to be happening. They don’t have to react to unexpected political choices made to favor particular people,” said Swan. “We did talk about each site when we worked on the plan. I can assure you that if anyone had recommended that a restaurant be a property use for this particular site, there would have been zero support for it.”


Ramey told the commission that he was unaware that the zoning was changed through the neighborhood planning process.


“When this property came up for sale, we told them ‘yes, it’s LR,’ and then with their research they found out it’s not. I’m not blaming anybody for that. I’m probably the one that’s most responsible for it,” said Ramey. “Everything that is along that strip is commercial. And I see no reason why this one particular spot should be as restricted as it is.”


Commissioner Danette Chimenti said she participated in the creation of the neighborhood plan, and recalled the discussion surrounding the property at the time.


“I think we have to think very carefully about what we want our corridors to look like. Do we want them to be solid bars and restaurants?” asked Chimenti, who noted that the area was already saturated with restaurants. She singled out Curra’s Grill at 614 Oltorf as an establishment whose patrons parked clear into the surrounding neighborhood.


“An office use is a tremendously different use than commercial, something like a restaurant. In an office use, you have folks there during the day using the property. You don’t have folks all night long going and parking and partying and stuff like that,” said Chimenti.


“I would like to respect the neighborhood plan. The neighborhood very carefully left this as office use,” said Chimenti. “This is a great little place for a local business… We have a need for small office. I don’t think we want to see it all go away. And I certainly don’t think we want to see everything turn into bars and restaurants.”


Nortey said that while he respected the points made about the neighborhood plan, he was in favor of the change.


“My worry is that as a zoning commission, we are taking too small a perspective,” said Nortey, He said that he thought there were other ways to honor the work done on the neighborhood plan, and stressed the importance of considering the citywide perspective.


“I’m really hesitant to accept the argument that once something is set in stone, in a neighborhood plan, we can’t change it. Because that means there’s no purpose to us as a commission to ever hear any uses different than the neighborhood plan,” said Nortey.

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