Third time’s no charm for Commander development; density still biggest concern

Third time’s no charm for Commander development; density still biggest concern

Developer moves forward with final plans –

Despite vowing in July that he would “continue to work these plans until we come up with a win-win for everybody,” Chase Properties president and CEO Michael Balanky has filed final plans after a public meeting with residents for the third and final time early last month. “We’re moving forward [with what was presented],” Balanky said after the meeting.

Although the City of Jacksonville’s Planning Department has attended each public meeting as well as many of the private ones, there is, of course, no indication from the Planning Department as to which way they are leaning. “We don’t know how they are going to receive it,” continued Balanky. But, in his opinion, “I think it’s going to be good for the city. I’ve had so many positive comments. Those pictures don’t hold a candle to how it’s going to look.”

Russ Ervin, architect for  St. Johns Village property, shows the proposed apartments in contrast with  the existing Commander Apartments

Russ Ervin, architect for St. Johns Village property, shows the proposed apartments in contrast with the existing Commander Apartments

The final plans were filed on October 24 with the Planning Commission, which will hold a public hearing on Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. at City Hall. Following that meeting, the developer will present to the Land Use and Zoning Committee but that date is pending, as is the date of City Council’s final public hearing on the bill [2013-0342].
Balanky opened the final town hall meeting with an acknowledgement that his final plans are still probably considered to be too dense for nearby residents. “I hope you understand, respect and appreciate the fact that I’m not going to be able to get everybody to be pleased about what we’re going to do. I still respect your position on that; just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean you don’t have a valid point,” he noted. “We’re trying to do the best we can for the neighborhood and for our company.”

He also stated that “while some people may feel like the project is not to scale from an architectural standpoint, it is to scale, in our opinion. ELM (Ervin Lovett Miller) would not do a project that would tarnish their reputation.”

The San Marco developer went through the issues one by one and provided his responses to those concerns that were initially brought up at the first community meeting back in May.

Addressing residents’ concerns
The first issue noted was that the project was too tall, based on the initial application which called for a 16-story building, the approximate height of the current 50-year-old apartment building. The developer and the architect are now proposing three buildings that are five, four and one story tall, spreading the number of units out rather than up.

Next, members of Riverside Avondale Preservation said that the project does not comply with the Riverside Avondale Overlay, while residents on Dupont Circle objected to the proposed width of the buffers between their property and proposed structures. To comply with the Overlay, the height of the tallest proposed building was reduced from 160 feet to 60 feet, not including a roofline feature for the garage on top of the highest building. And, “we have increased the buffers to meet or exceed the requirements,” stated Balanky. “In every case, the buffer we have now is dramatically better than the existing buffer and we have increased green space over the existing project.”

One of the major issues was opposition to the land use amendment for the St. Johns Village property which would change it from CGC (community/general commercial) to HDR (high density residential). The developer dropped the land use amendment. “We had a hard time with that, but Wayne [Wood] insisted that had to go; we heard that, we got creative and figured out a way how to do it without a land use change,” said Balanky. “I understand Wayne’s concern; going into the future he didn’t want to have a land use amendment to contend with at another time.”

The fourth issue addressed was concerns about road safety. Residents have repeatedly indicated that the S-curve right in front of the property is a problem for vehicles trying to make left turns from either direction on St. Johns Avenue. The developer’s response: “We agreed to do some road enhancements right at the S-curve, reducing the width of the lanes at DOT’s recommendation and we’re going to enhance pedestrian accessibility, including the sidewalks.”
Insufficient parking was another concern that residents had for the proposed retail space, which could include an upscale restaurant and a coffee shop. The developer’s answer to the neighborhood’s concerns about lack of parking was to nearly double the Overlay’s requirements. “The Overlay allowed for a 50% reduction but we did not take it,” responded Balanky.

An attendee at the third community meeting scrutinizes  the renderings of the proposed development

An attendee at the third community meeting scrutinizes
the renderings of the proposed development

What continues to be the thorniest issue is the fear that the project is too dense, and will result in too much traffic.
While the developer has chiseled away at the number of units and net leasable square footage (dropping from 339 to 260 units and from 302,000 to 282,000 square feet), the refrain from RAP and residents in the Arden, Fishweir and Fairfax neighborhoods continues to be “It’s too big.”
At the Oct. 9 meeting, Dr. Wayne Wood asked “How big is this really? You’ve heard us say this property is still too dense.” He noted that the building’s footprint is much bigger than the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine and twice as tall, and that, as proposed, it’s bigger than EverBank Field.
“Friends, that’s a big, massive building…too big for our neighborhood,” he continued. “We need to do some more scaling down; we’re not there yet. The original PUD at 166 units is closer to the density that this project deserves and needs.”

During the question-and-answer period after the presentations, Jack Swiadek, representing the Fishweir neighborhood, requested that the developer cut his proposed number of units in half – to 130, and create condos rather than apartments. Others at the gathering indicated they would be satisfied if the total number of units did not exceed that of the 2006 PUD.

Whether the project includes 260 units or 166 or something in between, the net leasable square footage at 282,000 square feet won’t change and that is what drove the traffic study, according to Steve Diebenow, attorney for the development. Cutting the retail space in half will result in substantially less traffic, noted Balanky. “The retail is where the traffic comes from. The more dramatically you reduce the retail, the more dramatically you reduce the impacts.”
At meeting’s end, those in attendance were urged to send emails – pro or con – to District 14 Councilman Jim Love and to the Planning Department prior to the Nov. 14 public hearing.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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