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Plans to rezone a downtown park on Kenan Street to mixed-use development met with some backlash Thursday, but the Wilson City Council voted to approve the change.
“Space given over to sidewalks, to whirligigs and that view, when you have a town that values that and is comfortable to live in, it is not something to throw away on a parking lot,” said Burk Uzzle, a photographer and downtown property owner. “Until the Whirligig Park became the Eiffel Tower for Wilson, that big open space was gorgeous.
“... This is a treasure and it is too important to piss away on a parking lot.”
At the heart of the issue is the Paul V. Berry Hickory Grove Park that has been eyed for redevelopment by BB&T as officials plan to invest $35 million in a new downtown building. When the project was announced in August, company and city officials agreed to a land swap with the city park given to BB&T while the site of the towers on Nash Street is turned over to the city. The land swap is not official, and the rezoning was requested by the city to make way for future development.
Officials highlighted the fact that the planned use of the park cannot be considered when making a decision to rezone, with City Manager Grant Goings citing state law that directs officials to vote based on if the new district is appropriate for the area or not. Goings added that BB&T’s plan is set to be unveiled to the public during the Dec. 13 city council meeting.
“Progress is never immune to problems. Whenever we have to make some type of progress, we are going to encounter some issues, some problems,” said councilman Michael Bell. “I listened to the citizens and I am looking more at the possibilities than the problem.”
He urged the city not to be “blindsided by saying ‘no’ to progress.” Bell made a motion to approve the rezoning request, which was supported by the other members of the council.
“When you look at the trajectory our city is on, we must focus on maximizing our possibilities rather than create mechanisms in our mind about destruction,” he said. “I believe we are building, and we’re creating a better Wilson for all of us.”
The subject of redevelopment of Cherry Hotel was continued until the Dec. 13 meeting, but Wilson Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz did highlight some of the details of the project. ABA Hospitality was selected by the council in 2017 for a proposed redevelopment that included hotel rooms, a restored ballroom and more. Since then, ABA created Cherry Hotel LLC to invest $18 million into the project and create 19 new jobs in the process.
“Downtown hotels can be transformational for redevelopment efforts in communities of our size. Typically we see them much later in the revitalization process, the icing on the cake so to speak,” Goings said. “But the declining condition of the Cherry Hotel did not allow us time, so we became very focused and intentional about putting a project together.”
The city plans to use a brownfield cleanup loan to help with abatement of lead paint, asbestos and mold in the early 1900s hotel. Wilson also has an option for $450,000 to purchase the property, and officials said the building would be signed over at no cost to the developer at the end of the project.