Hudson Council ponders community survey for Downtown Phase II
Discussion will resume at workshop session on Oct. 13
HUDSON —What's next for Downtown Phase II?
It appears residents may be asked for their thoughts on how they would like to see the city-owned property at Owen Brown Street and Morse Road used for a Phase II project.
Earlier this year, the city parted ways with the previous Phase II developer, Testa Companies.
Then, Randy Ruttenberg, principal with Fairmount Properties, visited with council Sept. 8 to offer a proposal for a townhouse project, office space and apartment buildings. After that meeting, Ruttenberg told city leaders his firm would not take any further action until council decided what they wanted to have done with the property. On Sept. 15, a motion made by Council member Hal DeSaussure (At Large) to have the city begin negotiating the sale of the Phase II property to Fairmount for the company's project failed by a 3-3 vote.
All of this led up to a 30-minute discussion during a council workshop Sept. 22. That debate ended with Council President Bill Wooldredge (At Large) inviting council members to offer ideas on what a community survey would look like and share it with their colleagues and city staff. He said that council would then resume their discussion at its next workshop Oct. 13.
"I do agree we need to keep moving forward," said Wooldredge. "I think we can all share our thoughts about what we'd like to see done to finally figure out what we as a council could agree on … and then how we could engage the rest of the city and how they would like to go forward."
Council members had differing views on whether more community input was needed.
Council member Chris Foster (Ward 2) said he's heard from residents who believe there was not enough community input and that potential developments proposed so far are too large for the amount of land involved.
"I tend to agree with them," said Foster.
Foster said he wants to see something happen with the property, noting the city pays "a substantial amount of money in interest every month," and has about $11 million to $12 million in debt in connection with the Phase II project.
Wooldredge noted the interest payments are about $20,000 to $25,000 per month.
Foster said he favored conducting a community survey that "asks for metrics on what people are willing to accept, how big [of a project] they're willing to accept."
After a survey is done, Foster suggested, "we go out to the communities, we ask for representatives, we create a series of meetings, we come up with one thing that we believe the town can accept and then we bring that to public hearing."
He said that after that process occurs, a plan could go before voters in an advisory election.
"Maybe you can get 50 or 60% of the town [voting] and get 60 or 70% participation in a program if you reach out and speak to everybody and they feel heard," said Foster.
Council member Kate Schlademan (Ward 1) told Foster that "I just can't agree with you that we haven't had a lot of community input on it."
The city in 2014 hired a consultant who "spent months interviewing people and getting groups of people together," said Schlademan. "We've literally been getting community input on this for six years."
Foster cited a recent example of a trail project that was proposed to go behind homes on Nicholson Drive. Though the project was well-publicized, Foster said the "vast majority" of the home owners came forward in opposition just as council was about to start the project.
Council member Skylar Sutton (Ward 3) agreed there's been plenty of community conversations, but said if there had been enough public input, he believes the advisory vote on the Phase II plan in May 2019 would have passed.
"The fact that it did not pass tells us that we didn't have enough dialogue and we didn't have enough input …because we didn't have the support of the community," said Sutton.
He noted he's heard from a lot of residents who want to see cluster homes built, but had not seen much of that offered in developers' proposals so far.
"That worries me," said Sutton. "There's something missing there in the conversation that people are telling us they want this and it's not showing up in the plan. I think the only way that we can get to some sort of consensus is [to] reopen the communication channels."
He said he supported doing a survey and suggested the city present three options to citizens to see what they want.
Council member Beth Bigham (Ward 4) said while she believed Fairmount would put together a project that would "be valuable to them and to the community because they have an investment here," she noted it was important to first determine what the community wanted.
"I think it's valuable to spend a couple months and really check with the community and get their feedback," said Bigham.
Council member Hal DeSaussure (At Large) said the ideas for Phase II were "folded into" the city's Comprehensive Plan in 2015.
He noted the process for the Comprehensive Plan and subsequently Phase II consisted of "a ton of community input," and added it didn't make sense to him to start a new community discussion.
"We can talk about what would we like there," said DeSaussure. "Unless we have somebody who's willing to undertake that task, it is really just a meaningless exercise."
DeSaussure acknowledged he took "some flak" from his colleagues for making a motion for the city to start negotiations with Fairmount to buy the Phase II land.
"[The motion] was intended to be a little bit provocative, but hopefully in a constructive way." stated DeSaussure.
He said he made the motion because Fairmount had offered a proposal and noted he believed the company would be "sensitive" in its approach because it has an investment in the city that it wants to protect. Fairmount was the developer of the First and Main project.
"We can do this [community] input but let's use Fairmount and signal to them that 'you guys are the ones that we're going to work with,'" said DeSaussure.
He said he believed city leaders needed to tell Fairmount if they were interested in having the company pursue a project.
"If not, they may walk and not come back," said DeSaussure.
Mayor Craig Shubert said said he liked the process outlined by Foster.
He proposed developing six different concepts that residents could then vote on in an election.
"Once we have a vote on something that people like and they're willing to support and embrace, then we can go forward and we can find any number of developers across this country," said Shubert.
DeSaussure noted the city has put a lot of money into the project already:
"We've moved the salt dome," he said. "We've built the bus garage. We've purchased the property. We are paying the interest on all of that. The longer we wait on this, the more we pay, and that's less money that can go into the road program."
Foster said the current council has not had a broad discussion about what members wanted to see happen on the property. He said he wanted to bring in a third party who's "well versed in analytics" to tackle the issue.
Bigham suggested hiring a data scientist to perform a "non-biased survey."
DeSaussure said he favored doing anything to move the process forward.
Bigham said she felt council needed "some more time" to "explore other opportunities."
"Do we have the answers in this room tonight?" asked Bigham. "I don't think we do."
Wooldredge said he felt council "need(s) to come together" on what they wanted to do.
"I've learned a lot of what many people don't want," said Wooldredge. "I wish I knew what a majority of people do want."
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.