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In the Path of a University City Costco, the Displacement Has Already Begun 

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Novus president, Jonathan Browne, hopes to start construction in the first quarter of 2020. - COURTESY NOVUS DEVELOPMENT
  • Novus president, Jonathan Browne, hopes to start construction in the first quarter of 2020.

When it comes to University City and Novus, the unknowns seem to accumulate. As Tsai and other business owners twist in the wind, the concerns raised by the watchdogs like Kathy Tripp, David Harris and Gregory Pace remain unresolved.

But in an interview last week, Novus' president, Jonathan Browne, provided the most optimistic timeline to date, telling RFT "we're weeks away from triggering the contracts for closing" with the roughly 70 homeowners in the 50-acre development site.

So far, Browne says that Novus has already spent $8 million on the project. Like everyone involved, he's eager to get construction started — but he knows the danger that eagerness can bring to a project.

"I feel like I'm holding back a team of anxious horses here," he jokes, at one point, but he acknowledges the danger of over-confidence. Like Tripp, he hasn't forgotten the damage wrought in Sunset Hills, where, he says, "people got their carts before their horses, even though we were telling them not to."

It's the risk of repeating Sunset Hills, Browne explains, that's partially behind Novus' hesitance in publicizing projected timelines and deadlines.

"We are right on the cusp of hitting the 'go' button, and it's hard to get people to not jump the start," he says. "I know it's excruciating to wait this long, and we've come a long way, but we don't want anyone doing anything before closing. We cannot give them any inclination that this is a guaranteed thing."

Addressing critiques from business owners, Browne counters that Novus is already "bending over backwards" to negotiate fair prices. In Jeffrey Plaza, he notes, Novus has committed to delaying demolition of the strip mall until a new retail site is built to host the relocated businesses.

But considering the fact that businesses and tenants in the development site are already leaving, it's not clear how many businesses are willing to trust Novus. It's also not clear whether it makes financial sense for those businesses to stick around: According to the redevelopment agreement, Novus is prohibited from raising the rents on the former Jeffrey Plaza tenants ­— for two years. After that, the businesses will face "an increase to market rental rate."

Ultimately, Browne says that beyond the commitment to delay demolition of Jeffrey Plaza, the struggles of its tenants aren't his company's problem.

"Jeffrey Plaza is no prize," he says. "That is old, dated, worn-out space, and we're going to put them in modern space. I just smirk when people talk about 'ruining the fabric' of these wonderful restaurants. We're accommodating them."

Still, while defending his company's practices, Browne maintains that the efforts will indeed pay off, especially for Ward 3 and its real estate values. He calls the increased sales taxes generated by the development — estimates included in city planning documents show projected taxable revenue from a Costco's first year of operation topping $60,000,000 — "a bonus for the entire community."

In the meantime, Novus continues its secret negotiations with residents and businesses, though it appears the developer is bringing more pressure to bear on those still holding out.

According to a June letter that Novus sent to homeowners signed to option contracts, the developer reassured residents "who partnered with us in the past" that they would not see their prices lowered, despite the fact that the deal with the city was renegotiated, and that eminent domain was now clearly on the table as a method of last resort.

But for the rest of homeowners in the development footprint, that isn't the case.

"For those neighbors who are not under contract, we would encourage them to quickly reach out to our office and discuss," the letter stated, and warned that those "who are waiting to sign [and] attempting to force a higher sales price need to understand that there is much less available to offer than there was in our budget a year ago."

The reason for that budget cut? It's not just the threat of eminent domain. The letter directly blamed "the $23 million error due to the city's consultant."

The project marches on. City leaders say Ward 3 is ready for its comeback, and Novus insists "University Place" won't become another Sunset Hills. But once again, it seems, Novus' costs and University City's blunders have been passed to the residents, who can only wait, and worry, for the full bill to come due.

Editor's note: Some wording story was updated after publication in order to better describe the University City TIF.

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