TraVure development in Germantown still faces BMA vote in January by Jane Roberts

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If all goes well, Gill Properties will start building TraVure Drive — the first evidence of a long-fought development — in February.

Two months later, or as soon as spring rains subside, the beginnings of the two hotels, five-story office building and 467- space parking garage could become visible on 10 acres off Poplar just west of Kirby Parkway in Germantown.

While there are still some uncertainties and approvals left, the project received Planning Commission approval this week, sending the project to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen next month.

No one knows the thrill of victory more than Ray Gill, who for months dealt with neighbors on both sides of his $90 million development digging in to alter the scope of his design.

They were successful in many cases. Gill twice changed the lighting in the parking garage, including the angle and placement of the internal fixtures on the bottom two floors and height and placement of light poles on the top floor. He added 25 feet of landscaping, including a labyrinth meditation garden, on the back of the garage to separate it from neighbors in Nottoway. To mitigate any light from the garage shining into the homes, late last week he replaced the partial walls on the east side of the garage with a solid wall.

"It did increase our costs, primarily by doubling the scope of the ventilation," Gill said. "We planned to ventilate the two underground floors. Now, we've had to increase it to the two top floors.

"The eastern wall, to me, is less attractive because it's solid," Gill said Wednesday, the day after the Germantown Planning Commission spent nearly four hours — adjourning shortly after 10 p.m. — discussing the project, hearing out irked neighbors and ultimately approving Phases 1, 2 and 3 and giving preliminary approval to Phase 4, the retail portion of the development.

Gill says he is receiving so many calls from retailers who want to be in TraVure, he's hoping to build it at the same time as the rest of the project.

TraVure is becoming the litmus test for Germantown's Smart Growth code — a series of zoning changes approved in 2007 by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen after extensive public review — and its ability to forge compromises.

In the 68 acres that include TraVure — on the south side of Poplar — the code allows developers to build up to five stories instead of two. It also requires them to move buildings to the street and place parking behind to promote pedestrian access.

Landlocked Germantown — with no industrial base — has decided to do everything it can to foster denser growth to provide residents the same level of government service, including its own public school system.

Neighbors in Nottoway, where homes start at $500,000, have hired an attorney to represent their points of contention, starting with what they say is an inadequate amount of landscaping to shield their properties from the garage. They are also unhappy that light from the south side of the garage will be visible, that a road behind the garage initially for emergency vehicles only is now a primary access for traffic and the wall Gill added to separate the development from the residential property is less than they would like.

"We believe it is an inappropriate boundary," homeowner Gene Henson told the commission. "We believe it is not unreasonable to ask for a more substantial boundary."

From Gill's point of view, code didn't require him too build any wall at all. When asked to produce the materials, one of Gill's representatives went to his car Tuesday and carried back a slab of brick veneer, heavy enough that it took three men to hold it up for the crowd.

The final test will come in early January when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen will review the final outline plan, including all the roads and parcels.

The potential conflict was foreshadowed in the planning vote. Two members of the commission who also serve on the BMA — Mayor Mike Palazzolo and Alderman Forrest Owens — voted against the outline plan.

Owens says it's a question of if, "with a capital I and F," the BMA approves the site outline.

"I hope to talk to the Gill team prior to them coming to us. We have a long tradition in our city of protecting neighbors, especially close to dense, urban development as this is," he said.

While Owens says Gill "made an admirable effort," he'd like "a little more movement," including increased landscaping and a more substantial wall.

"I just think of landscapers with heavy equipment," the alderman said. "What would happen if one were to bump it hard? It's less than two inches thick."

Palazzolo's issue is the service road, converted into one of TraVure's three formal entrances. Tuesday, he suggested Gill restrict use at night, allowing only emergency vehicles access.

Gill hears all this with mild-mannered disbelief.

"I don't see how they can expect any more compromise," he said a day after the meeting. "We'll go before them and see. Anything can happen."

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