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Citizens favor green space over housing

In yet another debate about whether a desirable piece of property — in this case a downtown Mount Airy green space — should be developed or left alone, prevailing support has been shown for the “don’t mess with it” option.

Most of the seven speakers making their opinions known on the issue during a public hearing before the city council Thursday evening favored preserving that spot along Cherry Street situated between South Main and South Renfro streets.

Others expressed support for developing housing units on the 1.6-acre, municipal-owned parcel near the Mount Airy Post Office to meet a growing demand for residences locally, which some opponents questioned.

“This Cherry Street section is something many towns and cities would want,” said Calvin Vaughn, describing it as an at-risk green spot downtown.

“And when it is gone, you can’t get it back,” Vaughn added during the public hearing that took up most of the council meeting lasting about two hours and 15 minutes.

He was joined by others who appreciate the aesthetic value of the land in question, although some support was shown for making it into a sort of water park with facilities such as splash pads or establishing a sheltered farmers market.

“I love that area — it’s pretty to look at,” hearing speaker Linda Gatchel said of the property once occupied by an inn and single-family housing which were razed to leave an empty grass field. Gatchel would like to see facilities such as fountains and benches to encourage picnicking there.

Norman Schultz, another person who spoke, considers the Cherry Street lot “a rare and endangered thing” that presently provides a useful purpose.

“It is a place of solitude,” said Schultz. “There is one green space on Main Street.”

Schultz added that he views the Cherry Street property as similar to a stately old oak tree.

Some see that tree as beautiful and others as a way to make money, by cutting it down for lumber, and then “it’s gone forever.”

Housing issue

Among citizens who voiced support for housing on the site was Joe Zalescik, a former member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. He referred to its passage of an updated downtown master plan in 2022 which listed the Cherry Street property as an “opportunity” location for housing.

That included a suggestion for 12 cottage-style homes on the site and another for 14 townhouse-style residences.

Zalescik said he favors the dozen cottage-style structures, which he figures would represent a tax value of $350,000 each. “You can get a tax value of over $4 million from that lot.”

This would produce annual tax revenues of $25,000 or more “using conservative numbers,” according to the former commissioner.

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” Zalescik added, providing much-needed market-rate housing within downtown walking distance.

Hearing speaker Melissa Hiatt said she would love to see facilities such as a splash pad or farmers market on the Cherry Street property, but is compelled to view it in a realistic, common-sense manner.

Hiatt believes housing and transportation are the two most important items looming now. “We need housing.”

That issue was what spurred the question of how best to use the Cherry Street property.

After a countywide consortium was held earlier this year to explore how the housing need could be remedied, private development interest for residential use there was shown, although Interim City Manager Darren Lewis said Thursday night no firm offers had transpired.

Some of the hearing speakers said they believe other places in town would be more suitable for large-scale housing projects. This includes the former Koozies/Quality Mills site on the corner of Franklin, North South and West Pine streets.

“If you want to put housing somewhere, I think it’s a fabulous place,” Gatchel said during her time at the podium.

Brenda Cooke, a resident of Cherry Street near the grassy lot, also questioned whether there would be sufficient parking for a residential development there.

“Where is everybody going to park?” asked Cooke, who says this already is a problem in that area. “The streets are full every weekend.”

And sentiment was expressed Thursday night that the 12 homes backed by Zalescik would do little to offset the area housing shortage.

John Pritchard, another citizen speaking at the public hearing, reminded those present that the city government had bought the property years ago to ensure it would be available for a possible expansion of the post office.

Banking facilities also were envisioned there at one time, recalled Pritchard, who said he favors no particular project on the land now.

“I think it’s time for the city to recoup its lost revenues,” he said in reference the purchase by the municipality of the property now said to have a tax value of $381,000.

However, Schultz pointed out in his remarks that money is not the only consideration involved.

Action to come later

The commissioners made no decision Thursday night concerning what purpose will be pursued for the Cherry Street corner.

“We just have to decide what is the best use of that,” advised Lewis, the interim city manager, who also listed building a parking lot in addition to other options mentioned. “I do not feel we have to jump to any rash decision.”

City Attorney Hugh Campbell said during Thursday night’s meeting he thinks it is noteworthy that holding the public hearing involved a voluntary decision by municipal officials to gauge citizen sentiment.

Most such hearings are legally mandated, Campbell explained.



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