San Marco Preservation looks to put teeth in neighborhood plan

The balance between urban development and preserving the character of an historic neighborhood has always been tricky. In an effort to preserve San Marco as the unique and special historic community it is, the San Marco Preservation Society intends to legislate its neighborhood action plan, San Marco by Design, in order to give it some “teeth” as a guide to future development in North San Marco.

In order to provide guidance to developers and the city’s planning commission and department, the preservation society established a set of guidelines to provide a “road map” for smart growth in North San Marco in order “to preserve and improve the quality of life for the people living, working and playing in San Marco.”

Once the final revision has been approved by the society, SMPS will submit it to District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer for approval by the City Council as an ordinance. SMPS expects to hold a town hall meeting to discuss the final revision in April or May, said San Marco Preservation Society President Andrew Dickson.

“It had broad support when it was drafted originally. When we roll it out again, we will have a panel of original stakeholders there to answer questions from whatever constituency is interested,” he said.

The purpose of San Marco by Design is to provide a framework for future decision-making as the physical environment of the community evolves due to changing circumstances and market conditions. Included in its composition are recommended changes to regulatory structures, alternative procedures for development and approval, development incentives, as well as programming for public investment and other innovative or creative community development techniques.

San Marco by Design separates the North San Marco area into 12 districts based on geography, existing use and building heights. The plan covers all of San Marco north of Mitchell Avenue and is bounded by I-95, the St. Johns River, San Marco Boulevard and San Marco Square. It also identifies the existing business corridors of Atlantic Boulevard, Hendricks Avenue, Kings Avenue, San Marco Boulevard, and San Marco Square.

“We made recommendations for what the future development should look like based on what was already there,” said Dickson. “This is a balance between growth and the current neighborhood scale and allows for changes while preserving the neighborhood feel.”

Looking at each district, the neighborhood guidelines spell out the maximum height of retail and residential buildings by identifying the highest existing building in each area.  For instance, in the Landon and Belmonte Districts buildings are limited to three stories, while in the Hospital District, which is closer to the Southbank, it’s a 12-story maximum.

“The closer to I-95 you get, the taller you get,” said Dickson. “As you transition towards the urban, the taller buildings provide a sound buffer to I-95.”

In the instance of the yet-to-be-developed East San Marco, which already had an existing PUD in place which allowed six-story mixed-use development, the design plan mandates buildings on the Atlantic Boulevard Corridor can reach a maximum of six stories. The East San Marco complex deliberately transitions down to five stories as it advances south and west in order to transition between areas of higher and lower density, Dickson said.

In regards to the Kings Avenue District, design rules will be particularly important in the future, because it will serve as the “front porch” to the on-going development of The District – Life Well Lived, Dickson said.

“This is a guide to development for the next 30 to 50 years,” Dickson said. “And this does not apply to the Better Homes and Gardens areas of San Marco, such as River Road and the residential areas south to Greenridge. We wanted to concentrate on these districts because there is so much opportunity for renewal, and we felt we must define what that renewal should look like.”

Time to study smart growth

San Marco by Design was born during the 2008 recession. Prior to the housing bust, there was a lot of infill development pressure in San Marco, and the preservation society felt it was only responding “reactively,” Dickson said.

“Projects would go through city planning without our knowledge and some of the plans that went through were unsuitable,” he said, noting that in many ways the recession was a blessing because it called a halt to many such developments. “The recession gave us the opportunity to study what infill development meant for San Marco,” Dickson said.

In 2008, SMPS consulted with leading Smart Growth expert, Dan Burden, then director of Walkable Communities, Inc., and he set up a workshop to help the SMPS board understand certain concepts necessary to create and preserve San Marco as a livable community. He pointed out several concepts, which differed from the generic guidelines for land use and zoning currently used by the city.

Some of the concepts he discussed were the idea that crowded and slow streets are good; the importance of achieving higher residential densities relative to commercial and public areas; the necessity of a core commercial place such as San Marco Square or the San Marco Library, as an activity center for community gathering; the need to connect activity centers within walking distance of each other through sidewalks and bike lanes; the need to provide extensive landscaping and awnings for shade to make the sidewalks to the public areas more pedestrian friendly; the need for buildings of two to four stories, such as those on San Marco Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue, to have 80-percent window frontage on the first floor; and the importance of creative parking solutions such as the parking agreement between the San Marco Merchants Association and Southside Baptist Church.

In 2009, SMPS formed a workgroup to identify project funding in order to create a Smart Growth Plan specific to North San Marco. When Valerie Feinberg, a co-author of San Marco by Design, who was formerly with the Health and Planning Council of Northeast Florida, obtained a grant from The Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida, she selected to study San Marco.

Feinberg named a steering committee comprised of Dickson, Bill Killingsworth, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department; Doug Skiles, of EnVision Design, who chaired the committee; Mike Balanky, a prominent Southbank developer; Bill Cesery, George Foote, Jay Handline, Connie Vaughn, Keith Kimbell, Michelle McCoy, Tim Miller and Mark Thiele. Chris Flagg, who currently works for the Haskell Company but at that time was with the Flagg Design Studio, assisted with workshop facilitation.

Zim Boulos, president of OES, District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, Michael Saylor, AICP, of Black Dog Planning and Rob Smith, a Southbank landscape architect, served as “in-kind support” and as technical advisors.

The steering committee consulted with a broad spectrum of community stakeholders – merchants, developers, landlords, residents, architects, professional urban planners and landscape designers – to guide them through the process of what smart growth means. They also held a number of design charrettes to get as much input from the public as possible.

“All the people got around the idea of what the best practices for neighborhood should be,” Dickson said. “This is not an exclusive endeavor. We had public comment each step of the way.”

The San Marco by Design document, which was originally published in 2012, has already had an impact on North San Marco development, Dickson said. Baptist Health has been currently using it for guidance as it draws up conceptual plans for its new Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, he said.

“Because the document has been around, developers have voluntarily built to its standards. Now that the interest in development is picking up, we need to finish the final revision and get it to the City Council as an ordinance. Once it is law, it will require the planning department to consult and interpret this plan when it reviews development applications. Having it in place is an advantage to developers because when they make first contact with the city they will be given it so they can have a certainty of what is permissible in the area where they are building. They can use it for guidance of design so what they do is consistent with the neighborhood, and we won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “The advantage to the community is it provides a predictability and an appropriateness for a new development.”

An important distinction between San Marco by Design and the Riverside Avondale Preservation Society’s historic overlay is that it is a neighborhood action plan, said Dickson. The North San Marco overlay presented in the new action plan only addresses setbacks and the height and density of buildings with an eye to increasing walkability, accessibility, business viability, economic development and greenspace along its streets.

“We want ours to be is rigorous enough to preserve the character of the neighborhood but flexible enough to allow for growth. We want to strike a balance between neighborhood character and property rights,” Dickson explained. “We address forms but not house design.”

“A decade ago we consciously decided not to go the historic overlay route,” Dickson continued, noting in the battle between preservation and conservation, San Marco leans toward conservation in the effort to undertake change responsibly.

“We think, or have found, it’s a good balance for the neighborhood,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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