Homewood development partners seek exposure for rejected project; say they’re not sore losers
On the day the council will get a status report on a commercial proposal for a lot by West Homewood’s Patriot Park, two home-grown developers say they’re bewildered their idea for a restaurant/event space at 165 Oxmoor Road was rejected in favor of the rival proposal from Avondale investor Hunter Lake. Today, the Finance Committee meets at 6:15 to hear the status of negotiations with Lake, who is known for the brewery and other Avondale ventures, including Post Office Pies, and which have been ongoing since March 7. The Lake project was the only official submission to a second Request for Proposals to build on the city-owned lot. When unveiled months ago, it included a three-story building layout with a Post Office Pies restaurant on the ground floor and condominiums on the upper floors, and a second phase of condos in the rear. An updated concept may look entirely different.
Business partners Sonya DiCarlo and Paula Harris of Homewood, meanwhile, had been back to the table with their plans multiple times over the course of nearly three years, with little encouragement or guidance on the council’s expectations, they say. The concept pictured here, called The Grove, is
the fourth and scarcely-seen final version presented in February. One rendition was rejected with little explanation on Dec. 7, and two prior submissions died from inaction on the city’s part going back two years, they say. Whatever the news at tonight’s committee meeting, the business partners they will support it, but want residents to know how their own plan evolved, what it included, and the details leading to its rejection.
Some background: In early 2014, DiCarlo and Harris were the first developers to pitch a plan for a model building that would showcase new village-style zoning codes adopted in parts of West
Homewood. By March of this year they had submitted four plans, reflecting an evolving commercial concept, two they initiated themselves, one submitted as a response to an RFP (and rejected along with a rival plan for a food truck park), and a final plan, pictured, submitted in February. It is that most recent plan that they say wasn’t fully considered, while the council, impressed by the Lake name and resume, voted March 7 to pursue his proposal (click here for .
DiCarlo and Harris say their project was overlooked because they asked for it to be considered outside the RFP, whose terms were problematic. The drawings, for instance, hadn’t been updated to reflect new city sidewalks that encroached on the lot; the documents had a clause for the city to buy back the property at 60% of the purchase price, and they wanted 100%. Those were the kinds of points they could reach agreement on if given a chance, but they were not, they said.
“After we submitted our first proposal, we were never given a response of yes, no, or let’s talk,” DiCarlo said. “There was nothing other than acknowledgement that they received it. We explained that we were interested in meeting with the city attorney and/or council members to talk about any concerns they may have about either the project, the timeline or the price. We were never asked to a meeting.”
There were other matters that might have been negotiated: The city apparently objected to their initial “low-ball” offer of $50,000 on a $135,000 asking price, a fact they learned much later at a Spring 2015 Finance Committee meeting. The lot is a former gas station, the site of a fuel tank spill that had undergone substantial monitoring and was only cleared by regulators for commercial use. See the RFP documents here. DiCarlo said the $50,000 offer accounted for costs associated with additional testing. Nevertheless, she said they resubmitted an offer at the full asking price in exchange for tax abatements and other discounts, but were ignored again. Their most recent offer was set back to $50,000 — considerably higher than the Hunter offer of $35,000.
Then there was the Corky Bell complication. By fall of last year, talk was circulating that any redevelopment would benefit by the addition of the adjacent Corky Bell property, whose owners weren’t interested in selling. Coincidentally, the owners in September received a letter from the city attorney citing complaints about an odor from the business’s septic tank. The property is co-owned by Jim Terry, an architect, and his sister, West Homewood resident Marcia Steedman, who is the long-time operator of the dance studio. Following a site visit by the attorney, a ward councilman and park director, in which no problems were detected, the owners were drawn into further discussions about selling their property for The Grove proposal. Terry listened, but his reluctance to commit immediately, which he made clear at the Dec. 7 work session, may have played a role in the project’s rejection, DiCarlo said.
That was when DiCarlo and Harris said they decided to sidestep the RFP process altogether and submit a new rendition directly to council on the next deadline, set for Feb. 15. But the council, citing the Presidents Day holiday, extended the deadline another seven days, allowing the Lake team additional time to turn in their proposal. This is the only plan officially pursued in the years the property has been available.
Experience or in-experience?
Council members seemed relieved to find a name-brand developer for the West Homewood site. Harris is a pharmacist. DiCarlo, who is a former TV reporter and part owner of a family-run restaurant in New Orleans, said their proposal never seemed to carry weight with the council despite the work they put into the business plan and having a well known local architect’s name on the drawings. Was the council uncomfortable negotiating with women? Was it the offer price? What? DiCarlo asks. ‘“They kept asking, ‘Are you ready to go?’ Would you be ready to start right now? Do you have tenants?’ And we kept saying yes, yes, yes. We aren’t sore losers. We’ll support whatever is built there,” Harris said. “We just want to fill in the blanks about what happened.”