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Newport Board Has Different Views on Two York Street Projects

The Newport board of adjustment decided favorably on a project that would renovate much of the building that currently is - and ideally, according to the developer, will continue to be home to York Street Cafe.

A proposal several blocks north on the downtown street was not so well-received, to put it mildly.

"We are not here for the applicant's business. Just because a person have us an application doesn't mean we have to give a motion," said board member Mark Marron during a recent virtual meeting where the property at 514 York was discussed. The property, according to the Campbell County Property Valuation Administrator (PVA) website is Gulliver Holdings, LLC, which had hoped to convert the street-level commercial space into a residence.

But even the attorney representing Gulliver was unclear on where exactly all the apartments currently are, as formal addresses within the building.

"I feel that place is an eyesore. It's obvious the guy bought it at the lowest possible thing, and maybe put a roof on it," Marron said. He added that a unit in the building rents for $335. "That's really the best we can do on York Street right in the center of town? It sounds to me he has no ambition to make it fit in with the rest of that block, the rest of our city and whatever the vision is we have for that.

"It's telling me, it's an eyesore now, it's always been an eyesore, and guess what, it's going to stay an eyesore. I find that offensive."

City of Newport Code Enforcement Director Brian Steffen, the staff member who assists the board, explained that the application for 514 York was to add two residential units to the first floor for a total of four units in the building.

John Fortner, the attorney representing the owner, could not identify the locations of the existing apartments by their addresses, which confused members of the board as they considered what exactly the developer was asking of them.

Steffen said that the city was opposed to the application. "It does not seem there is a real effort or energy to bringing this building up to its highest and best use," he said. "It seems as though to me and others in the city that this is just trying to stick whatever is existing in there and put tenants in it."

"We would really hope the applicant comes through with a good plan of having to renovate the storefront - those are all positive things. This just seems like a very generic reuse of the property," Steffen said.

Fortner explained that the building had previously been used as fully residential rental, including the street level, and that the owner also addressed parking concerns by working out a plan with a nearby private lot operator for tenants to rent spaces for $35 per month.

But the board was unmoved.

"I'd rather have him sell it or have somebody in there that has a vision of it fitting in our city than a guy who says we'll give you four apartments at three hundred dollars a month and see how many police calls we get out of it," Marron said. "I've never felt more strongly about an issue or an application here before.

"We're not here to make this guy successful. We're here to do what's right for the city within the law."

Ultimately, the board took no action, meaning that the commercial space could not be used as residential.

Fortner said that his client would adjust.

"He's not going to let this valuable first floor space go unused," he said. "My client is going to have to renovate that to a commercial establishment. We can always revisit and see if it can be used as residential. We're certainly not going to remain vacant."

Meanwhile, a few blocks south, the building that is home to the famed York Street Cafe got the OK for a redevelopment plan, which was seeking a parking variance.

Developer Braylen Chandler explained his intentions for that building at 738 York and its neighboring building, 734 York.

734 will have "a good amount of money" put into it, he said, offering a pair of two-bedroom, two-bath rentals that should list for between $1,200 and $1,350 per month.

Chandler said that he has completed two other similar duplexes on the 800 and 900 blocks of York and received those rents.

The York Street Cafe building is a larger project. Currently, the restaurant occupies the first floor while the second floor is used as an event space. The third floor is a large open room often used for weddings, Chandler said. The fourth floor is vacant.

"Our intention is to keep a good tenant on the bottom. We hope they keep the restaurant open. If they decide not to, we want to get a similar style business in there," Chandler said.

The second floor would continue as an event area operated by Chandler's family. "We want to do some substantial renovation there," he said.

The third floor will become a two-bedroom, two-bath penthouse-style apartment, he said, with a likely rent of between $2,000 and $2,500.

The fourth floor will also have a similar floor plan, he said, but he hopes to list that one for closer to $2,500 since "it's got some really good views of downtown."

"It's a beautiful building, it just needs a lot of attention," he said.

Steffen, representing the city, encouraged the board to approve the two-space parkign variance for 734 York and a condition use permit to operate a multi-family there, and a four-space parking variance and conditional use permit to operate a multi-family at 738 York.

Both votes were favorable and unanimous.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: 514 York Street (RCN)