Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Developer Gene Townsend vets a change to his Ottawa Block development project.

It seems that developer Gene Townsend doesn’t want the kind of conflagration that erupted this past summer over the City Market project because of poor communication.

Townsend appeared Jan. 22 at a joint meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood and the Genesee Neighborhood associations — for the third time — to explain a change to his Ottawa Block project, a mixed-use development that would occupy a block along Ottawa Street between Butler Boulevard and Sycamore Street.

Townsend wants to make sure that it’s OK with locals that one of the buildings in the project, which would sit on the corner of Sycamore and Ottawa, might change from residential space above ground floor retail space to office above retail. The development still will include 76 condominium residences

The reason for the change, Townsend said at the meeting, which included At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries and Economic Development Corp. CEO Bob Trezise, is that over the last year the interest in new residential units has declined. However, interest in office leases have stayed flat.

Another large part of the meeting was Townsend ‘s zoning contract. He’s needs to re-zone parts of the land for commercial use (that’s F-1 Commercial Zone for local zoning wonks). There are eight parts of the contract, three of which were added by Townsend. Five of the conditions, which Townsend called “no-brainers,” include no billboards, no car sales, no car service stations, no drive-thru windows and no standalone pa rking lots. Townsend added: limiting surface parking to 21 spaces, setbacks to no less than those on bordering properties, and a minimum of 3,000 square feet of retail space.

Although the meeting was friendly overall, some in the audience expressed concerns.

Jeffries was concerned because the project was “sold to the public” with the understanding that it would all be residential. And At-large Councilwoman Carol Wood chimed in — through Jeffries — that she wants to make sure any retail space remains “neighborhood friendly.”

“It has to be neighborhood-serving retail,” Townsend said, meaning it would draw only from the neighborhood and nearby state offices. “Could there be a dry cleaner? Yes. A TV repair shop? Maybe, but probably no.”

There were also a lot of questions about parking. Townsend is pro-actively limiting the number of ugly surface lot spaces to 21 — so what would all the potential office workers do for parking? Townsend said that the most sensible plan would be to create a “liner” building, which would wrap the retail and offices around a parking ramp in an effort to hide it. And, if something changes in the market and the project turns out residential after all, those 21 spaces would be reserved for residents.

The next action on Ottawa Block (Townsend said during the meeting that there’s really no solid timeline for the development) will be for the City Council Development and Planning Committee to take up the zoning change (Jan. 28).

“Some people were not happy that this had to change, and it takes work to explain that the economy has changed, funders have changed,” Monica Zuchowski, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said. “But Gene is very good at trying to resolve issues before it gets all blown up.

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