The parade of residents who spoke at the Decatur Planning Commission meeting last week to protest a proposed town home development wasn’t a new occurrence for the city.
It’s become almost expected in a city that leaders say needs residential development. City residents are particularly vocal against multi-family developments: apartments and town houses.
However, city officials and developers say Decatur needs to push forward with new construction for the future of the city. Encouraging a "variety of housing options" is an element of the city's 3-year-old One Decatur plan.
In just the past two years, as seven major subdivisions went through the city approval process, the commission heard protests against three of them. A fourth one, planned for near 14th Street Southwest, required a series of public meetings with city officials to satisfy adjoining neighbors.
John Seymour, Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said people desiring development but objecting when it’s near them has become too typical in Decatur and Morgan County. He pointed out that two Priceville apartment complexes in recent years never progressed.
“Residents want more retail businesses, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, but then they oppose developments,” Seymour said. “You can’t have it both ways. Decatur needs the rooftops (and people) to support the retail everyone wants.”
Decatur native Steve Armistead, the Nashville developer planning to build an 18-unit town home complex, named McGhee Square, off Walnut and Vine streets just east of Bank Street wasn’t shocked or even deterred by the opposition.
“It’s a very normal process to have opposition when you’re getting a different kind of product that changes the area,” said Armistead, who has spent his career developing urban properties in Nashville and dealing with aging and often historic neighborhoods.
Local developer and contractor Danny Hill wanted to build a $7.8 million upscale apartment complex off Old Moulton Road in 2015, but nearby residents’ outcries killed the plans. Opponents presented petitions with more than 350 names from residents of the City View and Summer Shade subdivisions.
Hill, who serves on a chamber committee focused on getting residential growth in Decatur, has been involved in about 10 apartment developments in Mississippi and Alabama. He said initial opposition to developments isn't unusual in the many places he’s worked, but it seems to be stronger in Decatur.
“The problem with Decatur is we have a need but we always have opposition,” Hill said. “Decatur has made it hard to build multi-family homes, but when the time is right, they will happen, and I think the time is right now.”
Not just Decatur
Mayor Tab Bowling said officials from other communities told him that they also see the “not in my backyard” attitude in their cities, too.
“It’s in all communities and I understand it. They want to protect their way of life, but they’ve got to understand that this is part of growth,” Bowling said.
Seymour said there’s been interest from outside developers in building upscale apartments and town homes, which leaders say the city desperately needs for the young and highly paid professionals who don’t want yards to maintain.
He said the problem is the city hasn’t had any new upscale apartments in 20 years, so there aren’t any comparable properties on which to base estimates for financing and potential cost and income, making it difficult to attract developers.
“It’s a risk on the part of the developer,” Seymour said. “We just have to tell our story and show them how big the need is.”
Decatur is the only place outside of the Nashville area where Armistead has development plans. He started a garden home development off Bank Street in 2016 that hasn’t materialized. He said that plan could still work out, but his group is moving forward with the town house project.
A 1974 Decatur High graduate, Armistead said he wants to build here because he has lots of good memories of the city and he also sees it as ripe for development, especially the downtown area.
“I look at Bank Street and all of the potential in-fill sites and Decatur has a fabulous future,” said Armistead, who with his brother David owns Tennessee Valley Pecan Co. on Bank Street.
The residents objecting to the McGhee Square town house development said it would harm the historic district's ambience, increase traffic and crowd the neighborhood.
“We need to preserve the neighborhood,” Debra Fore, of Johnston Street, said.
Despite the residents' protests, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend rezoning property for the development and to approve the preliminary plat. The City Council has the final say on whether to approve the rezonings.
Seymour said he sees the planned town houses as “quality stuff” that will improve the area.
Armistead estimated a development like McGhee Square costs more than $5 million. He’s planning two-story town homes that are 1,200 to 1,500 square feet and will list for $280,000 each. The town homes will each be sold separately.
“These aren’t Section 8 or cheap,” Seymour said. “This development is from a guy with a track record of building good, quality products.”
The development is on the edge of the Old Decatur Historic District, and Bowling said he knows some are worried about its impact on the district. However, he said these town houses are the type of development people should want in their neighborhood because it will boost their property values.
“We’re talking $250 a square foot. That’s the kind of neighbor I want,” Bowling said.
Armistead said his group had its plan reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission so the development will fit with the neighborhood.
Armistead said he’s planning on additional downtown developments in Decatur, and Seymour said there are a lot of spots available for small apartment complexes and loft apartments. He pointed out that 307 Second Avenue loft apartments have been very successful.
“Living in the downtown is just another style of living,” Seymour said. “They want to walk to restaurants and stores. We probably need another grocery store and pharmacy downtown.”
Bowling said there’s been interest from developers and the Morgan County Commission in putting a mixed-use development at the county’s Lee Street parking lot. The city would then be willing to give up the old city jail property as a site for a parking deck.
The key is coming to a financial agreement, which could possibly include city incentives to help the developer, the mayor said.
City officials said there are other areas in the city ripe for development. Bowling said the area north of the Tennessee River in Limestone County is “prime,” particularly for a mixed-use development.
Bowling said Spring Avenue also has potential for a mixed-use development, especially with the retail and high number of churches and schools in that area of Southwest Decatur. The area near the new Austin High School also is considered a place for growth.
There’s always a risk that constituents near a new development could become unhappy, but Bowling said the city’s elected leaders “need to remember they’re doing what’s best for the city as a whole.”