Planning Commission unanimously recommends approval of Laurel Gardens redevelopment

The Laurel Planning Commission on Tuesday, May 15 unanimously recommended approval of the Laurel Gardens redevelopment, a project that has raised concerns from residents of the 79-unit apartment and townhouse complex and neighboring property owners.

Owner Laurel Realty is proposing to demolish the existing units, located on Park Avenue, Nichols Drive and Philip Powers Drive, and build a new 114-unit development with off-street parking and green space.

The vote, taken immediately after a public hearing on the project with no discussion from commission members, further instilled belief in Laurel Gardens residents that the project is being railroaded through the process with little consideration as to what will happen to them.

"The lack of empathy from the committee is disgusting," Anthony Tassallo, who lives in Laurel Gardens with his fiancee, Alysia Forrest, said after the commission's vote.

"This thing has been put on some incredible rocket docket that I have never seen," Andrew Jackson, who lives with his girlfriend on Philip Powers Drive, said during testimony at a public hearing before the City Council the night before.

However, after the May 15 vote, Planning Commission Chairman Donald Williford noted: "Don't think that we are not empathetic. ... You will have another chance to speak."

That chance will be before the City Council on May 30 during the second public hearing on the redevelopment. The council is expected to vote that night on an ordinance to approve overlay zoning for the project.

Overlay zoning was created, in part, to help developers who want to replace older commercial and residential buildings with new structures that could contribute to the city's revitalization. It does not change current zoning ordinances, but frees developers and investors from following them if their development plan is compatible with the city's revitalization goals and is approved by the city.

Following introduction of the Laurel Gardens overlay zoning ordinance at its May 14 meeting, the council held a public hearing, and only a few people spoke. More people testified at the Planning Commission's hearing on the redevelopment the following night, and some people who attended the hearings but did not testify, shared thoughts afterward.

Cheryl Curtis, who lives in one of the units on Nichols Drive, was one of the few people to speak before the council.

"Consider that all of us residents, we need a place to live that is less than $1,000 (monthly rent)," she said, noting there aren't other affordable places in the city where the residents can move.

Laurel Realty has never standardized its rental rates at Laurel Gardens. Some tenants currently pay as little as $585 monthly rent, with newer tenants paying about $850 for one-bedroom apartments, Laurel Realty's Catherine DiPietro told the Laurel Leader last month.

Tassallo and Forrest pay $900 a month. The couple has had trouble finding comparable rent in Laurel, where they work, Forrest said, noting concerns about other residents.

"You have fixed incomes, people that barely make it and struggling single families," she said.

'A little too much'

Grant Gross and his wife own a home on Philip Powers Drive. He told the council he and other area homeowners met with Robert DiPietro, Catherine DiPietro's husband who is representing both Laurel Realty and the builder, Legends Builders, and said DiPietro addressed some of their concerns but not all of them.

"I believe that number of units will cause some traffic problems in the area," he said. "They're trying to build a little too much in the area that they have to build in."

Gross also noted concerns about parking, saying the homeowners may ask the council for permit parking on Philip Powers Drive if the redevelopment goes through.

Another homeowner, Susan Sullivan, who has lived on Nichols Drive for 28 years, said she is concerned that the new development will be out of place.

"It's an older neighborhood," she said. "The current buildings, they are designed to fit the neighborhoods."

C. Philip Nichols Jr., whose father owned Laurel Realty and built Laurel Gardens in the early 1950s, defended the project before the Planning Commission.

"To re-engineer Laurel Gardens is just not feasible," he said. "My family has considered and explored all reasonable options."

Nichols also refuted the argument that the project has been rushed, noting planning began in 2004.

Regarding the current residents, Nichols added: "Hopefully they will be better off."

When Council member Fred Smalls, the council representative to the Planning Commission, asked Robert DiPietro to explain the timeline for the project, DiPietro said if the council approves the overlay zoning, the project has to go through a "lengthy" engineering process before the final site development plan can go before the Planning Commission for approval.

"I would assume at a minimum we're probably at 90 days; (it) could be as much as 120 (days)," he said.

Helen Smith said she's lived in Laurel Gardens 21 years and never once been late on her rent. She said she and some of the other residents have put their own money into fixing up their apartments, including the recent paint job she gave to hers, which is "now for nothing."

"Why wouldn't (Laurel Realty) compensate us and give us enough money to move ... $1,000 to get started?" Smith asked the commission.

Tassallo agreed that relocation expenses, or even the early release of their security deposit, would help soften the blow.

"We just want to make sure the tenants are treated with fairness and respect," he said.

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