Improving the commercial development process

Retailers, developers and city officials work through frustrations to find better solutions

By Steve DiMattia
Resident Community News

Sometimes out of the most seemingly disharmonious moments emerge unity, or, at least, a path to better communication and a deeper understanding between all parties.
There is hope that this was the case during an often-contentious February panel discussion sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers designed to help retailers, developers, and local government work effectively together to navigate the development process.

“I know there was a lot of critique of the city’s process tonight, but I think we all want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” said panel member Michael Balanky, president of Chase Properties, after the event.

Balanky was joined on the panel by two small-business owners with strong ties to the historic district and a shared frustration navigating through the city’s development process: John Valentino, owner of four Mellow Mushroom restaurants, including one newly opened in Avondale, and Ben Davis, owner of Intuition Ale Works in Riverside.

The three directed the brunt of their criticism at the City’s seeming lack of a cohesive, universally understood and easily accessed program designed to assist commercial land development, and an accompanying flow chart that clearly lays out necessary steps, particularly for increasingly crucial infill development. Balanky and Valentino also questioned the degree to which citizens can detour a project through a seemingly endless process of appeals while forcing the developer to incur all delay costs.

“The city encourages businesses to come in and then when they do, they are met with nothing but resistance,” said Valentino, who was forced to negotiate with the neighborhood organization We Love Avondale for over two years over parking and noise concerns. “I wish that there were someone at the City to say to whomever has a difference of opinion, ‘Look, these are the laws, this is the way it is. My job is to encourage this man to come and invest in this neighborhood and create jobs and if you have a problem with that, that’s a personal problem.”

Balanky, who recently encountered neighborhood resistance about his St. John’s Village development, proposed that there be some restrictions on the length of the appeal process.
“When I developed, I had a great rapport with the City. But there are repercussions to delay, delay, delay,” he said. “We had over 15 public meetings. It went on ad nauseam. If we had contained that in 30 days, we wouldn’t have ended up any differently. But it would have saved a lot of sleepless nights.”

While not a panel member, Carmen Godwin, Executive Director of Riverside Avondale Preservation, was in the audience and noted that most of the issues that instigate neighborhood resistance come about when developers request exceptions or deviations to zoning codes, usually to increase the scope of the project.

Davis, who has dealt less with neighborhood resistance and more with the restrictions placed on breweries/taprooms as well as the ambiguities that come from the fact that his business falls under two different zoning designations, voiced exasperation at the general lack of cooperation and initiative on the part of the City.

“I don’t consider myself a developer, I consider myself a small business owner,” he emphasized both during and after the panel discussion. “Jacksonville has the opportunity to be the Portland, the Milwaukee, the San Diego of the beer scene in Florida. We’ve got the room, we’ve got the drinkers…City Council members should be the ones taking action to make that happen, but you don’t necessarily see that.”
Balanky took the notion of city representatives’ responsibilities a step further.

“I think educating City Council people on land development and planning is an important part of the process moving forward,” he said. “They should understand the process and be educated about things that they are making decisions on every day.”

No city council members were present at the event, but Alexandra Rudzinski, Director of Development for the city’s Office of Economic Development, represented the city on the panel. Many key players in the development process also attended the event, held at Bella Sera in Riverside, including Calvin Burney, Director of the Planning Department, Jack Shad, Director of Parking, and Paul Crawford, Deputy Director of Economic Development. Stephen Dare, co-founder of the online forum, Metro Jacksonville, moderated.

While Rudzinski was not entirely successful in placating fellow panel members, she routinely emphasized empathy for their situation, noted that the development process was an “organic, not one size fits all” program, and promised that the City would continue to find better ways to streamline the commercial development process.
Planning Director Burney concurred.

“I think we are already doing some of what they expressed concerns about, but I know we can always do a better job at improving the process and communicating the steps that we already have in place,” he said.

For Balanky, that is an important part of improving the commercial development process.
“I think it’s just a matter of keeping open lines of communication between the city, the developers and the retailers. Forums like this definitely help,” he said.

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