A four-story senior housing complex, with up to 40 apartment units, is a step closer to getting located on a parking lot at Via Bella and Mulberry Street.
Council on Thursday night approved a conditional use and amended contract for the FORTUS Group's purchase of the real estate valued at $250,000, but it was Pete Sides - who, in 1985, had a vision for blighted property and built Robert M. Sides Family Music Center, 201 Mulberry St. - who couldn't get the answer he was looking for from council.
"Would you put this project in front of any of these businesses," he asked, referring to Kohl's, Wegmans and downtown hotels.
To Sides, it doesn't matter that the proposal fits the comprehensive plan, it's about location and visibility.
Sides said senior housing was a "worthy project," but it was not appropriate in a high-density retail area.
"They'll get the benefit of what I paid for in 1985, and that is unfair and rude," he said.
He claimed apartments will block visibility of his family-owned sign above the store.
"This is four stories high," he said. "The sign on my building will not be seen from the Beltway or Via Bella."
"I would have no objection to a single-level retail store at the site," Sides said.
Sides then asserted the congestion levels will get worse than they are now for nearby neighbors, including St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Little Lambs Day Care, Mulberry Street Cafe and Eagle Janitorial. He alleged motorists already encroach on their private parking lots.
Sides also questioned the accessibility via Canal and Jefferson streets, claiming it will increase traffic problems, and said a planned two-way curbcut on Via Bella will require speed bumps between Mulberry and Court streets to slow traffic.
He also didn't see the practicality of putting senior citizens that far away from stores such as Kohl's or Wegmans.
John Grado, city engineer and director of community and economic development, said a traffic assessment indicated it was the right kind of development, presenting the least congestion.
He said the project must go through a land-development phase and said the intention is to create an entrance from the east and an exit to the west.
Grado said those issues can be looked at by the planning commission in land development.
"It's a permitted use," Grado said.
The housing project is dependent upon the developer receiving tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
One of the conditions on the application is to get zoning issues out of the way, Grado said.
Councilman Don Noviello questioned whether a separate entrance and exit location would address some of the congestion potential.
Noviello also suggested that the potential future tenants would provide a more captive audience for the many retail opportunities downtown.
Councilwoman Bonnie Katz said she believes the project will benefit the city's multiple small businesses and the larger stores.
Katz said she has heard from some residents of that age group, who want to live downtown, that one benefit would be living in a building that overlooks the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and connects to retail, entertainment and other positive aspects of city living.
Kevin Hogan, director of development for FORTUS Group, has told the Sun-Gazette he will begin the application for the tax credits, and he might receive notice by March. The closing on the property probably will not occur until late next year before the construction could begin in 2014, he said.
Council President Bill Hall voted against the conditional use, noting how one of the criteria was whether it was the best use of the property, but he voted in favor of amending the contract for the purchase of the real estate.