Second community meeting held for St. Johns Avenue development

Residents fearful of ‘intensity’ due to proposed high density

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

In what may have been an attempt to allay fears that re-development plans for the properties at 4000 St. Johns Avenue would be pushed along too quickly for adequate constructive decision-making, the second town hall meeting began with an appeal from the property developer.

“This is still a work in progress, said Michael Balanky, president/CEO of Chase Properties, Inc. “This meeting is about hearing more from you guys, what else you like or don’t like, and we’ll continue to work these plans until we come up with a win-win for everybody.”

The developer’s newest set of plans for where the Commander Apartments Tower  currently sits shows an apartment  complex spread over three buildings of varying heights

The developer’s newest set of plans for where the Commander Apartments Tower
currently sits shows an apartment
complex spread over three buildings of varying heights

Although Steve Diebenow, attorney for the applicant, appeared to echo those sentiments, later comments from residents indicated there is still a high level of distrust and unhappiness with the proposed plan.

The applicant has had one large meeting and a half a dozen smaller meetings, including three with local groups to allow people to react to the new plan that was presented on July 17 by Russ Ervin and Tim Miller of ELM (Ervin, Lovett and Miller), an architectural firm on the Southbank.

Diebenow continued, “Everyone is not going to agree with Mr. Balanky’s and the architects’ vision for the property. There’s never 100 percent consensus but we’re going to do our very best to reflect the feedback from all the meetings we’ve had and the ones going forward.”

Early in the meeting, the attorney noted that while the property is not located in a historic district it is in the Riverside/Avondale Preservation Overlay, which will control portions of the project. However, at the end of the meeting, following remarks by representatives of RAP and the Fishweir Neighborhood Watch Group, and by residents from nearby Arden Street and Woodmere Drive, Diebenow made the statement that “the Overlay is not the starting point. The 2006 PUD [Planned Unit Development application] is the starting point. We are asking for a change. We will provide areas where we comply and where we fall short.”

Avondale resident Tracey Henderson states, “The intensity and density proposed in the new PUD are too much for the neighborhood, and incompatible with the surrounding uses and adjacent road networks. This is an application for a re-zoning, so the negotiations for what is appropriate today begin with an analysis of the proposed PUD under the terms of the 2008 Riverside/Avondale Overlay.”

One resident feels that the developer would like to have his cake and eat it too. Avondale resident Jeff Graf, in a follow-up interview, commented that the strategy appears to be one of looking for significant relief from the Overlay. “This could adversely affect the Overlay, which could affect the zoning for the entire Historic District,” he said. “The developer is asking for too much relief from the Overlay in his new PUD.  And contrary to his claims, he is giving us nothing in return for his very intense proposal.”

The plans unveiled by ELM revealed a surprising change in intent. Earlier meetings indicated that the developer would be building luxury condominiums where the Commander Apartments tower currently sits; the newest set of plans shows that it will be an apartment complex of 300 units spread over three building of varying height.
Diebenow confirmed that change in plan. “These are luxury apartments, not condos; we will be amending the PUD and the re-zoning application.”
Ervin, a principal at ELM, said “There’s not another property like this in the city and it’s exciting to be part of the revitalization. The owner wants to build as ‘condo grade’ and then convert from leased apartments to condos in the future.”

The proposed plan calls for 300 units, spread over three buildings, including 12,000 square feet of retail space in a three-story building. The current 17-floor apartment tower would be replaced by a multi-level building of 216 apartments (not to exceed 14 stories), leasing office, fitness center and include a three story parking garage.  A second building would include 20 two-story townhome units above ground level retail shops, with restaurants potentially capping the ends of the building.  Another three-story building would contain 64 multi-family units in the space where the current retail center exists.

When resident Douglas Coleman asked “Does this comply with the Overlay?” Tom Miller replied “It does not.”

One of the groups most concerned about the proposed development are the residents who literally live under the shadow of the Commander. The “pocket” neighborhood known as the Arden Group includes those who live on Dupont Circle, Arden Street, Morningside Street, Richmond Street and Greenwood Avenue southeast of St. Johns Avenue.
Residents in that small community are fearful of the effect of the intensity that a much larger – triple in size – development would have on their quality of life. That includes everything from an increase in traffic, including resulting propensity for increases in accidents, to noise and to the ongoing effects of living in the shadow of a larger structure just 40 feet from property lines.

Mary Corrigan, a resident of Boone Park Avenue, said at the meeting, “A great consolation would be funds in escrow for another traffic study after the plan is developed.” In a follow-up interview, Corrigan expanded on the traffic issue. “We’re obviously concerned about the amount of traffic that’s going to be cutting through neighborhoods, mainly ours, which already gets a lot of traffic from the elementary school and from FSCJ. If you have that many apartment residents all that traffic will be coming out at the same time in the morning as children are coming to school. There’s quite a bit of pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the morning at that intersection. We have walkability in our neighborhood now and that many additional residences will affect that walkability.”

Tonya Hollinger, who lives nearby between Herschel Street and St. Johns Avenue, said “I feel very strongly that the proposed development is too strong in intensity within the current guidelines. These guidelines are there to protect us and keep us from making mistakes, to protect the integrity of the neighborhood and against inappropriate development. It needs to be a clear and obvious benefit to our community. What is that benefit?”

At the end of the meeting, Diebenow addressed Hollinger’s question. “The benefit of the project is infill, and a decrease in suburban sprawl,” he said.

A huge round of applause came when Wayne Wood addressed the audience. “You’ve just seen 40 minutes of beautiful, pie-in-the-sky drawings that are too intense for the neighborhood. We’ve fought for, earned and want to protect the Overlay. The issue is not what it looks like or even the density – it’s the intensity. Let’s start with what the zoning overlay says and the 2030 Comprehensive Plan that is already in place.”

The meeting concluded with remarks from the developer. “This is a difficult situation. People are concerned about their safety and their neighborhoods and I share those concerns with you as well,” said Balanky. “I can’t emphasize enough that the application that was put in was put in at a time when we really didn’t know what we were going to do, so you always overreach to some extent because you can’t go back; if you start too low you can’t go back up.”

Balanky continued, “I promise I’m going to be honest with you and transparent with you and I’m going to keep trying to where we can get this thing to where everyone feels good about it.  Whatever we build we will build something real nice.”

A neighborhood website, commander-rezoning.com, provides additional detail about the proposed land use amendment and the proposed re-zoning application.

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