By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
COOKEVILLE – It was standing-room only last night in the council chambers as the Cookeville city council took its turn to review the proposed rezoning of a property being eyed for an upscale student housing development aimed at attracting students attending Tennessee Tech University.
First reading of the ordinance passed 4 to 1, after being amended to add specific criteria regarding fencing and sidewalks prior to the council’s vote; with councilman Charles Womack abstaining from voting on the amendment and casting the council’s only “no” vote on the amended ordinance. The measure still requires a second reading before receiving final approval by the council.
Mayor Ricky Shelton proposed the amendment to the ordinance that would require the developer to provide a sidewalk along Franklin Avenue and, where possible, adjoining to University Drive. A metal, wrought iron-style fence and evergreen trees would also be required along the property.
“I know it’s been mentioned we should take our job – our service – seriously and our vote seriously. I can assure you, I take my service to my hometown very, very seriously and I take every vote very, very seriously. I always have and I always will,” Shelton said, addressing audience comments during the public hearing portion of the meeting. “That’s called pride and it’s called having pride in yourself and having honesty and integrity and that’s what I do.
“It’s an emotional issue because it affects you,” Shelton continued. “We are supposed to look at it objectively. We’re here to hear you tonight. We represent all constituents that voted for or not voted for us, it doesn’t matter. I don’t, honestly, stand here and take votes or take action on items based on how I think it’s going to affect (being elected) because I was elected to try to do the right thing, whatever I think that is, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
If approved on the second and final reading, the 11-acre property eyed for the proposed development, known as The Aerie, located on W. 9th Street and N. Franklin Avenue, would be rezoned from RS10 single-family residential to planned residential development (PRD) – a level of zoning that would strictly limit the development to remain almost identical to the plans presented for review.
Several audience members in opposition of the request and the development, addressed the council, citing concerns of potential increases in traffic and decreased property values.
“We bought (our house) knowing full well there were apartments on each side of the property and we look down at Tennessee Tech’s campus,” said Rick Burnett, a N. Franklin Avenue resident who has called the neighborhood home for approximately 10 years.
Burnett’s property is also near the recently completed new parking area on Tech’s campus.
“I did not expect the change in our backyard is possible – from woods and a private area to three- and four-story apartment buildings,” he said. “I love our community but it troubles me that we are looking at changing a zoning regulation, height regulations, length of building regulations for an apartment complex.”
“Tonight, I wanted to speak to you about your vote,” Reba Lasater, a Pine Avenue resident for 60 years, told the council. “It’s very important at this point in Cookeville that everybody can identify you as individuals by the way you vote on this particular project. It will be very telling … Please, vote your conscience tonight but be aware that everybody in Cookeville needs to know how you vote individually (and) all feel about your senior citizens and their right to, not only the pursuit, but the continuation of happiness.”
According to the Titan Development, LLC, the developers behind the proposed project, the development, known as The Aerie, was designed specifically with the students of Tennessee Tech in mind. According to the project’s proposal, The Aerie will be “complimentary to TTU’s current and future student housing.”
However, the project is neither sponsored nor funded by the university.
Some members of the audience spoke in favor of the development, noting such a development could help the university remain competitive among other universities.
Phil Wilbourn, a member of the Putnam County Regional Planning Commission, addressed the council to vocalize his support of the proposed development.
“What I’m here for is to express my concern for everybody on the council to look at the big picture,” he said. “The big picture is ‘what helps the three-legged stool that supports this city.’ That stool is Tennessee Tech, the hospital (Cookeville Regional Medical Center), (and) the retail and restaurant business.
“These parents are looking for small college towns where they get a sense of safety and security for their kid for four or five years,” he added. “So, this development, to me, offers an opportunity for several students to live within walking distance of the campus, in a safe environment. And, when parents come up here and see what’s available, they can feel secure about their kid’s lifestyle here.”
The property slated for the proposed development, purchased by Titan Development in February 2017 for $1 million, according to the state’s real estate assessment data website, is near the western edge of Tennessee Tech’s campus. Given its close proximity to the university, it’s prime real estate for off-campus housing and is a three-minute car trip or 0.8 miles away from the heart of the university.
An increase in traffic has been a common concern voiced by many of the Mount Vernon residents who spoke out against the proposed development.
A third-party traffic study conducted by J.M. Teague Engineering & Planning, hired by the project’s developers Titan Development, LLC, indicated that any additional traffic associated with the proposed development “will have minimal impact on the surrounding roadway network.”
Plans show The Aerie would consist of three buildings that would house a combined total of 160 one-, two-, and four-bedroom units featuring a combined total of 412 bedrooms on a little more than 11 acres.
Instead of being rented per unit, space would be leased by the bed and would be fully furnished, each with its own private bath and walk-in closet, and rent would be all-inclusive – with all related utilities and services bundled in the rent amount. Site access would be limited to two gate-controlled entrances and the facility will be staffed 24/7, developers say; offering a controlled and secure environment, not only for residents of The Aerie community but for the surrounding neighborhood as well.
Justin Cumby and Wayne Cravens, who lead Titan Development, have explained the site’s natural topography will provide screening against nuisances such as sounds and light.
Even though the development is not sponsored or funded by Tennessee Tech, developers say the university would benefit from the construction of the new housing development.
The university offers 2,018 beds, spread across the campus’ various residence halls, and is at around 93 percent occupancy, with 148 available beds unoccupied. Browning and Evins Halls are currently offline, undergoing renovations. At Tech Village, there are 227 apartments with a reported occupancy rate of about 99 percent at the time of the September report – 356 students were listed in those units. At that time, there were three apartments that were not rented, but those have since been filled.
There are currently just over 10,500 students enrolled at the university this semester and university policy requires all freshmen students – a class comprised of more than 1,775 students as of the fall semester – to live in student housing. The requirement that sophomore students also live on campus was slashed in recent years.
The city’s planning commission approved the rezoning request during its November meeting with two members casting a “no” vote against the rezoning request.