The Laurel Park Overlay District faced its first test recently as the first proposed project to go through the review process met objections from residents in the neighborhood.
The Woman’s Exchange, a nonprofit consignment shop located at 539 S. Orange Ave., is planning to expand its facility, including building an addition at 526 Rawls Ave. The project site is located within the Laurel Park Overlay District, and, because the total footprint of the construction exceeds 5,000 square feet and it’s within 100 feet of a residential area, it is the first development to go through a process the City Commission approved in June.
The Laurel Park Overlay District was established to give Laurel Park residents more oversight of developments in the area that would otherwise be approved administratively. As a result, the Woman’s Exchange must hold two public hearings regarding its expansion — the first of which was held April 30 — before getting approval from the city.
At that public hearing, Laurel Park residents made it clear they have significant concerns about the proposed expansion. The new building on Rawls Avenue, designed to serve as the pickup, drop-off and storage site for consigned furniture, was the source of most of the problems.
To drop-off or pick up furniture, trucks would travel down Rawls Avenue and back into a designated area in front of the new two-story building. This is designed to reduce congestion inside of the Woman’s Exchange parking lot; planning consultant Joel Freedman said box trucks often blocked internal traffic on the current Woman’s Exchange site. Freedman said Rawls Avenue was designed as an alley for that sort of service usage.
Residents in the area disagreed, arguing that Rawls Avenue is not suitable for regular use by larger trucks. Those who live in the area shared stories of regular vehicles struggling to make turns along the street, and said trucks backing into a loading area would have even greater difficulties. As a result, they said, a number of issues would arise — including traffic congestion and disruptive noise, both of which would affect residents in the immediate vicinity of the new building.
Apartment complexes such as Spanish Oaks sit near the intersection of Rawls Avenue and Cherry Lane, and attendees of the public meeting worried that the Woman’s Exchange expansion could disturb the residential quality of the area. Although Freedman said Rawls Avenue is designed as a service alley, Laurel Park Neighborhood Association President Kelly Franklin wrote a letter to the city stating that Rawls and Cherry are used primarily for residential purposes.
“Both of those streets are quiet and residential in character, and both are very narrow,” Franklin wrote. “Neither street has sidewalks, meaning residents who have parked cars in these congested streets must use the roadway to walk to their dwellings.”
Rebecca Dixon, a resident of the Spanish Oaks apartments, offered the Woman’s Exchange design team the opportunity to sit in her apartment across the street during the planning process. In attempting to address internal issues, Dixon hoped the Woman’s Exchange would try to avoid creating different external issues.
“Please take it as a design challenge,” Dixon said. “Design something that you would want across the street if you lived there.”
Laurel Park resident Jolie McInnis said she was worried the expansion would also mean increased activity at the Woman’s Exchange, which would exacerbate the potential problems, she said. Karen Koblenz, executive director and CEO of the Woman’s Exchange, said the organization was not seeking to increase the amount of furniture it receives and delivers. Currently, Freedman said, the building averages eight furniture pick ups and drop-offs per day, though that does not account for seasonal fluctuation. The new pickup/drop-off area would be able to house three trucks at a time, architect Chris Gallagher said.
McInnis echoed the sentiments of several residents when she said her concern was not with the presence of the Woman’s Exchange, but rather with the proposed site layout.
“We’re not against the Woman’s Exchange — the Woman’s Exchange is great,” McInnis said. “We just don’t want the loading dock there.”
Although the Laurel Park Overlay District requires two public hearings to gain administrative site-plan approval, it doesn’t necessarily require the developer to acquiesce to the requests of the residents. When the Laurel Park Overlay District was approved, residents wondered whether it had enough teeth. As the Woman’s Exchange expansion moves forward, they’ll find out.
Koblenz, who was not present at last week’s meeting, said the organization was seriously considering the input received from the residents.
“All I can say is that we are currently looking at their concerns,” Koblenz said. “We’re not that far into the process where some of these things can’t be considered.”
After officially submitting a site plan, the Woman’s Exchange will have to hold a second public meeting before it can receive approval from the city. For Laurel Park residents, that meeting will demonstrate whether their concerns were considered.
“I would just ask that the Woman’s Exchange be a good neighbor and realize that their actions are affecting all of the people around them,” Dixon said. “I would put it to you guys to come up with a plan that wouldn’t just benefit the Woman’s Exchange, but the whole neighborhood.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]