Five months later, Commander redevelopment on round three of site plan

Five months later, Commander  redevelopment on round three of site plan

Mass and scale still a huge issue for nearby homeowners

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

Residents on DuPont Circle may – after 50 years – see more of the light of day.
The shadow cast from the 170-foot-tall Commander Tower Apartments would be significantly smaller according to the most recent plans offered by Chase Properties developer Michael Balanky at a closed-door meeting at City Hall last month.

StJohnsVillage_Site Plan Acceding to earlier demands by nearby residents and members of Riverside Avondale Preservation, the architect for the developer unveiled shorter structures in the third – but probably not final – go-round of plans to redevelop the property at 3946-4000 St. Johns Avenue, which includes two parcels.

Russ Ervin, of Ervin Lovett Miller (ELM), showed the group of 21 attendees a site plan that includes four buildings, of which the tallest would not exceed 80 feet. The five-story residential building will also include three stories for parking on top of the fifth floor and the architect is reserving the option to add a peaked roof for esthetic compliance with the overall design of the site plan. Situated roughly where the Commander Tower currently stands, the new building will reduce the potential for obstruction of the sun by nearly 100 feet – or 55 percent of the existing building.

“While any height reduction is welcome, of course, what people are failing to recognize is how much more building there would be on the site,” said Jean Grimsley in a subsequent interview. “We have been asked to trade the significant vertical mass of the Commander for even more substantial horizontal mass. When you consider that the main spine of Building 300 as it fronts Fishweir Creek is 360 feet – that’s the length of a football field – it really puts the massive footprint into perspective.”

Issues, concerns continue to rear heads
While shorter structures are pleasing news to some of the nearby residents, it’s by far not the only issue that all parties are trying to address in this version of the game Whack-a-Mole.
First and foremost are concerns about the density of the building that would replace the Commander, which has 90 units. The new residential building would have 178 apartments, with a mix of one, two and three-bedroom units. That is in addition to two four-story buildings which together would offer 82 more units and a one-story building planned for 10,000 square feet of retail shops.

The combined total of 260 units is nearly 60% larger than the 166 planned unit development first introduced in 2006. Residents had a problem with the mass and scale then and they still do, including Gayle Granger, whose home has been under the Commander’s shadow for 50 years.

“The proposed development has the potential to more than triple the number of people using this tiny property, which is situated adjacent to low density historic residential homes,” said Granger. “This is a significant increase in population. We appreciate that the developer is drawn to the charm of our neighborhood, but his proposal is simply too intense for this area of Avondale.”

Commander_backyard_viewThe other “moles” that have consistently popped up during the two town hall meetings and other smaller, private meetings held since late April include concerns about an increase in traffic, safety, the potential for overcapacity at Fishweir Elementary School, fears about property values, setbacks for the property line abutting the DuPont Circle homes as well as the setbacks from Fishweir Creek, and the restoration of Fishweir Creek.

The traffic analysis – not a study – that was conducted on behalf of the developer indicated that the redevelopment would not owe a mobility fee. Steve Diebenow, attorney representing Chase Properties, said that the traffic analysis did not show an increase in traffic under the new plan. “The City says nothing was owed for mobility under the new plan because it would generate less traffic,” he stated. “By any measure, this development generates less traffic than what it does today.”

Residents dismissed the analysis saying that common sense would indicate an increase in traffic queuing at certain times of day along St. Johns Avenue, most notably in the morning when rush hour and school openings coincide and again during the evening rush hour as residents attempt to make a left turn off of St. Johns Avenue into either of two access points for the development.

Balanky challenged the group to have their own traffic study done and show him any issues they find. “We’re never going to ask for something that’s illegal and the city is not going to grant something illegal.”

Fairfax, Fishweir residents weigh in
Fairfax residents who live on Woodmere on the other side of Fishweir Creek expressed unhappiness with the proximity of the buildings to the creek. The setback ranges from a minimal eight feet to 13 feet according to the site plan, which does indicate landscaping along the entire waterfront, but that still appeared to be too close for comfort across the narrow creek.
Concerns about Fishweir Creek itself were also noted and the developer was asked if he had addressed it with the Corps of Engineers.
“It was premature at this point, but that’s something we will have to do,” he acknowledged.

Another area that the developer has not looked into yet is that of the potential for overcapacity at the nearby magnet school.

According to Mike Fisher, parent of a Fishweir Elementary School student and former member of the School Advisory Council, it appeared that no one from Chase Properties had contacted Becki Couch, District 6 representative for the Duval County School Board, to discuss the implication of overcrowding or safety. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more retail, because traffic is at its peak and the most critical danger is at the morning hours when students are coming,” said Fisher in the small group meeting. “The infrastructure at Fishweir [School] cannot handle any more students. The school is at 100 percent capacity.”

Developer feels plan fits
While several of the neighborhood representatives complimented Balanky and Ervin on the design, it was still very clear that its mass and scale was too much for the size of the property and the overall fit within the area. The developer disagreed.

“We think it fits within the [Riverside/Avondale] Overlay, we think it fits within Code, we think it’s good infill development, we think it’s a lot safer than what’s there today, even with the additional density, because of all the other changes we’ve made,” Balanky said. “Are we going to get everybody to say kumbaya? No, that’s not going to happen, it rarely ever does.”
“At the end of the day, what we have to try to be as sensitive to the neighbors as we can, to make as many compromises as we can without destroying the project and then we have to allow the process to take effect and we have to go forward and ask ‘does this fall within guidelines?’ If it doesn’t, they [City of Jacksonville Planning Department] tell us and we’ll have to make modifications,” he continued.

“There’s enough of the neighbors that are very excited about what we’re doing, that want to see a high quality development here,” Balanky said, to some outright skepticism. Wayne Wood stated that 95 percent of the people [who attended the first public meeting downtown and the two town hall meetings at Florida State College Jacksonville’s Kent Campus] are opposed to the development.

A third town hall meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of FSCJ’s Kent Campus. Residents can voice their views, pro, con or otherwise about the proposed redevelopment.

Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, this story was primarily written from transcription of the recorded Sept. 19 meeting, of which The Resident was made aware and attempted to attend, but was subsequently asked to leave at the request of some community representatives.

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