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Neighbors back Fort Ward townhouses

"In a rare instance of neighbors voting for development, Fort Ward residents Thursday night voted overwhelmingly to support conversion of a long-vacant historic structure to eight residential units.The vote, by attendees at a Fort Ward Neighborhood Association meeting, supported developer and South Beach Drive resident Scott McFarlane's plans to convert Building 16 to townhomes. The massive brick structure sits on Fort Ward Hill Road, just south of Evergreen Avenue and amidst a number of newly constructed or renovated homes.While the plan itself had widespread support, the FWNA board of directors was pushing for a maximum of five residential units rather than eight.Even so, there was disagreement among board members.I didn't think five units was financially feasible, and it doesn't do any good to support a project that won't work, FWNA secretary Terry Berggren said Friday. According to Berggren, the question presented at the neighborhood meeting was whether to support an eight-unit project or have the building demolished. Given those choices, the vote was 18-4 in favor of the larger project.But Eileen Safford, president of the FWNA board, said she does not believe the vote represents the true feelings of the neighborhood, nor does she believe the two options presented were the only choices.I question whether demolition was the only alternative, Safford said.Safford also questioned the appropriateness of the vote.The purpose of the meeting was to give information to new people who didn't know about the issue, she said. It was not appropriate to vote.Safford said a truer test of neighborhood sentiment would be a new poll of all area residents.Berggren did not find the vote inappropriate. The city council wanted to have a sense of how many people are on which side of the issue, she said. We needed to have a vote, because the council wanted to see some numbers.What persuaded Berggren was information presented at the meeting to bolster McFarlane's contention that the project requires eight units to be viable.I thought their numbers were very convincing, she said. McFarlane could not be reached for comment Friday.The council will now have to decide whether to create a historic-building ordinance, and then would have to approve a rezone for the building to allow the higher density.The building, constructed sometime between 1910 and 1915, was originally a quartermaster's commissary as part of the fort. It was later converted to a barracks, first for men and finally for women soldiers.Berggren said that while demolition might not have been the only alternative to building eight townhouse units, the true alternative might be even worse - continued deterioration of the building.A lot of people are getting kind of tired of watching the building sit there and deteriorate, she said. There haven't been a lot of developers come by. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. "

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