Last edited 2:32 p.m., Aug. 19, 2022
A pair of developers who seek to raze three historic homes along National Avenue at the northwest corner of Sunshine Street faced an unsupportive crowd at a public hearing Thursday night at Messiah Lutheran Church.
The hearing was held in advance of a city Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, at which the developers planned to introduce a proposal to rezone the residential properties to commercial use.
The properties include a large white house with a red door on the corner at 1755 S. National Ave. and two houses to the north at 1745 and 1739 S. National Ave. Another house, around the corner at 1138 E. University St., completes an almost perfectly square block totaling nearly 2 acres.
The developers, organized as BK&M LLC, are Anthony and Jessica Tolliver and Ralph and Sarah Duda. Anthony Tolliver and Ralph Duda led the meeting. In a handout, both self-identified as Springfield natives. Tolliver also introduced himself as an NBA player for 13 years, and Duda is president and founder of Anything Possible Brands, which manufactures fishing equipment for adults and children.
BK&M, which they say stands for “Be Kind and Merciful,” owns the three houses that front National Avenue, while the fourth house is owned by Stacy Hughes, according to Greene County assessor records.
Information provided by the developers identified the intersection as the second busiest in Springfield, with nearly 70,000 vehicles passing through it every day – only 1,000 cars fewer than Sunshine and Glenstone Avenue a mile to the east.
No specific plan
The developers were up front in telling the crowd of about 70 people that their intention was to tear down the three houses to build a mixed-use establishment. They did not outline specific plans for the property and offered no schematics or examples, but Duda said they envisioned stores with possible residential lofts overhead.
Some in the audience were skeptical.
“If I were investing my money in something, I think I’d have an idea of what I’d want to build there,” said a resident who identified himself as Ashton Lewis.
Another resident said he could not support the idea as presented. He said he might feel otherwise if the developers came back with a plan that addresses concerns like traffic, noise and architectural style.
Tolliver said the purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm with neighbors for a plan, rather than present them with one.
“We really wanted to engage the community about it,” he said. “We want to build something that fits the character of University Heights.”
In an interview with Springfield Business Journal after the meeting, Duda said he could easily imagine something like a Cheesecake Factory, a Gilardi’s or an Apple store at the site, but he said he was reluctant to offer specific examples, since no specific occupant is planned. He told the audience that he had not been in contact with Mercy or CoxHealth about the properties, though the hospitals own property at the two southern corners of the National/Sunshine intersection.
The handout provided at the meeting said they want to develop something positive for the city. Options listed include “professional office space,” a “fun restaurant,” “medical” or “other.” Hours of operation would be limited to 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
The handout excluded several usages, too, listing “What we won’t do …” as a cannabis or vape shop, payday loan company, massage parlor, clubs or bars, a liquor store, “sex (like Pricilla’s, Adam & Eve, etc.),” auto repair or gas stations.
“It will be professional,” the handout reads.
After the meeting, Duda said he and Tolliver have a lot to think about.
“It was pretty eye-opening,” he said. “We came with an open mind and an open heart.”
The meeting, however, was punctuated by strong emotion from residents of the neighborhood and others who were present. The crowd frequently broke into applause when someone spoke out against the plan.
The meeting was scheduled for 4-6:30 p.m. and ended 30 minutes early. Duda said he would have been glad to stay until 9 p.m. to answer questions and share ideas. However, when his wife, Sarah Duda, objected to a question being asked over an item that had been covered at the start of the meeting, a member of the crowd referred to her by a vulgar term denoting a female body part.
“When my wife gets called a c---, that’s it. I’m done,” Ralph Duda said.
Duda said he and Tolliver were accused many times during the meeting of coming to neighborhood residents without a plan.
“That was on purpose,” he said. “We wanted to hear what the residents of University Heights want to see.”
Tolliver stressed that to the crowd.
“Today, once again, was about feedback,” he said. “Feedback on if there is a development there, who would you want to see?”
Duda said the answer seemed to be nothing – no development would be acceptable to the assembled residents.
What the developers learned was that residents do not support any development that increases noise or impacts the character of the neighborhood. Duda said traffic was clearly the chief concern of the neighbors, however.
Jared Davis of Anderson Engineering Inc., a consultant to the developers, said his recommendation to them would be to postpone their meeting with Planning and Zoning. “We’re not ready for a Planning and Zoning meeting,” he said.
The city canceled the Planning and Zoning meeting that had been set for Aug. 25 by email today.
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