Foes adamant on medical office proposal

Debate before council goes late into night

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMay 7, 2013 

— A resurrected development proposal to build medical office space in a north Merced residential neighborhood went before the City Council on Monday night.

Over a year after neighborhood residents rose up in opposition and the City Council rejected the idea, proponents of the development were back hoping to get a second shot.

The decision before the council was whether to approve rezoning the residential area to allow for the commercial development.

As the tense debate ran long into the night, the council had not voted by Sun-Star deadline.

The protracted conversation started when Sid Lakireddy, a spokesman for project developer V&S Real Estate LLC, requested to continue the issue at a later date, citing the absence of Councilwoman Mary-Michal Rawling.

However, the council denied the request, with Mayor Stan Thurston, Councilman Bill Blake and Councilman Mike Murphy voting against it.

"We have both teams here," said Blake. "It's time to play ball."

The recent proposal included four buildings on a 7½-acre parcel just south of Mercy Medical Center. The development proposal was for the south side of Mercy Avenue between the future Sandpiper Avenue and Mansionette Drive, adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

In an effort to win over residents, the plan capped the maximum height of the buildings at 38 feet, down from 50 feet, and reduced the size of the project to 117,800 square feet, down from 133,000 square feet.

However, local homeowners remained steadfast in their opposition to the project, arguing that the development would dangerously increase traffic near Herbert Cruickshank Middle School and drastically reduce the standard of living for residents.

"We ask the council to consider the safety of children," said neighborhood resident Shannon Cantrell, who represented homeowners. "We, the homeowners, 300 plus, do not support the rezoning of this land under any circumstance."

"We do not need more office medical space that is unused in Merced," she added. "We already have a surplus."

Project supporters countered by saying the project would help establish Merced's evolving medical industry.

"This project provides the type of statement the community needs to make in terms of being business-friendly," said Doug Fluetsch, with the Merced Boosters Club. "Building this quality project will help continue the distinct advantage we have in our medical community."

Hoped to allay worries

The developer proposed to build, according to market demand, three two-story buildings and one single-story building.

About 60 percent of the complex was promoted for medical office use. The remaining units were designed for general office space, with space for small retail businesses.

The developer hoped several provisions in its plan would help win over the frustrated homeowners.

While the project could have allowed retail to serve the occupants of the office space, such as restaurants and pharmacies, the zoning change in the area would prohibit other commercial uses, including mortuaries, crematories, bail bonds businesses and apartment buildings.

The proposal included a roughly 20-foot landscaped area with a more than seven-foot wall along the southern property line to be installed to separate the residential and commercial properties.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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