Restaurant application raises parking issues in San Marco Square

Restaurant application raises parking issues in San Marco Square
Southside Baptist Church may hire a parking lot manager and charge for parking if the city approves the zoning application for a 150-restaurant at 1409 Atlantic Boulevard, where Stellers Gallery now resides.

Free parking in the lot behind San Marco Square, which is owned by Southside Baptist Church, may become a thing of the past if the city approves an application for a new 150-seat restaurant to occupy a space near the church on San Marco Square.

Al Mansur, of Al’s Pizza, who is also owner of the Flying Iguana restaurant in Neptune Beach, has a contract to purchase the building at 1409 Atlantic Blvd., now occupied by Stellers Gallery, said building owner Victor Zambetti, adding Mansur plans to put a Flying Iguana restaurant in the space. “It’s under contract, but is still going through the permitting process,” Zambetti said. “It’s not a done deal,” he said.

Mansur has applied to the city for a liquor license and a waiver to reduce the required distance from a church from 500 feet to 111. He is also working to acquire parking from a nearby church and office building for the spaces, while requesting a deviation to reduce the minimum number of required off-street parking spaces from 43 to zero, according to city documents.

But there’s the rub. Although some stakeholders, including the San Marco Preservation Society and the San Marco Merchants Association, welcome the prospect of having a new business inhabit that space, the prospect of having patrons from a 150-restaurant so close by flood into its parking lot alarms officials from Southside Baptist Church.

A routine public hearing has been scheduled by the city’s Planning Commission for Thursday, July 21, but may be postponed at Mansur’s request, said District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer.

Understanding that many San Marco residents and merchants are concerned about parking, in mid-July, the San Marco Preservation Society plans to hold a special town hall meeting to discuss the parking issue, Boyer said. No date or time had been set by press time. Attorney Paul Harden, who represents Mansur, has requested the Planning Commission public hearing be postponed until after the town hall meeting has taken place, Boyer said.

In a letter written to Folks Huxford of the City Planning Department, Southside Baptist Senior Pastor Gary Lee Webber expressed his concerns about Mansur’s request to reduce the required 43 parking spaces to zero, stating the exception depends largely on the availability of Southside Baptist Church’s parking lot, located in close proximity to the proposed restaurant, behind the north side of the shops on San Marco Square.

“According to the church’s PUD (ordinance 1999-1245-E) the official hours of operation for the parking lot are from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the insistence of the nearest residents as an effort to keep the noise level down,” wrote Webber in his letter. “Regardless of the original intent, these hours of operation are not conducive to the kind of business being proposed. The PUD also grants the church exclusive use of this lot on Sundays (all day), Wednesdays (after 5 p.m.) and for special events (funerals, weddings, church activities). We believe any exception must include a plan that demonstrates what the Flying Iguana plans to do during the hours that the church lot is unavailable for their customers,” he wrote.

In a phone interview, Webber said the church wants to be “a good neighbor” to San Marco and its merchants. “In 20 years we have never closed the lot, but water seeks the lowest level and we don’t want to monitor whether it is a shopper or someone going to church who is parking there on Sundays and Wednesday nights,” he said noting the church has already given easements to other businesses and those with seniority should have priority to its spaces. “We want to provide parking for the businesses that already are here,” he said, adding when the lot fills up, “customers will park along neighborhood streets in the area.”

The same PUD restrictions also apply to the Demetree parking lot at 1950 Thacker Avenue, said Webber in a telephone interview. According to documents obtained by The Resident from the city, Mansur has been in negotiations to lease 8,407 square feet of parking lot from The Demetree Brothers, Inc. upon the opening of the Flying Iguana. Webber said when Southside Baptist sold the parking lot to Demetree Brothers, Inc. years ago, it retained a 99-year-easement to use the lot on Sundays, Wednesday nights and for special occasions.

Concerned the conditions of the PUD governing the church-owned parking lot might not be upheld by the city, the church is considering contracting with a parking lot management company in order to enforce the terms and conditions of the PUD, including the hours of operation and the exclusive use of the lot by the church on Sundays and Wednesday evenings after 5 p.m.

“This will most likely result in the parking lot management company charging for parking through the week,” said Webber in an email to The Resident. “This is not an ideal option for us. We have appreciated the spirit of cooperation that has existed between the church and the San Marco merchants. It is not our desire to charge the merchants’ customers to park in the church lot through the week, something that could have an adverse effect on their business, but it appears as if we may be left with no other option,” he wrote.

In his letter to Huxford, Webber said it was his understanding the planning commission’s final parking exception regarding the church’s parking lot had been issued to Taverna. “I have been told that the planning commission stated the exception granted for Taverna was the last parking exception they would grant to a business on San Marco Square because the area has reached its parking capacity,” he wrote. “I know another establishment requesting an exception to reduce the required number of parking spaces from six to zero was recently denied. It would seem that this current request would warrant the same decision.”

In the phone interview Webber said, “We have no intention of not being cooperative, but the Al’s Pizza group only reached out to us this week even though they said in the papers they had made arrangements with the church.”

Also no arrangement by Harden or Mansur has been made with neighboring South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, which recently agreed to lease 11 spaces in its church parking lot for use by the Matthews brothers’ new Rue St. Marc restaurant, Webber said.

Liquor license a concern

Also of concern to Southside Baptist Church is Mansur’s request to reduce the distance required between an establishment selling liquor and the church, from 500 feet to 111 feet.

“While it is true that a number of liquor licenses have been issued within 500 feet of Southside Baptist Church, those establishments have all been on the south end of the square. This means that the church has had the benefit of two busy roads and a city park as a natural buffer between our congregation and the establishments serving liquor,” Webber wrote to Huxford. “We believe that issuing a liquor license on the north end of the square sets a new and dangerous precedent and completely eliminates any barriers the city ordinance intended.”

SM PS President LeAnna Cumber said the Society wants to be proactive on seeking a solution to parking congestion in San Marco, and plans make the issue its highest priority this year.

“Parking is always a challenge in San Marco. We need to work on how we can fix this globally so businesses don’t need to apply for deviations all the time,” Cumber said, adding that the Society intends to attack the parking issue in a similar premeditated fashion to the way it resolved the San Marco Neighborhood Plan, which provides a roadmap for ongoing development in San Marco. The town hall meeting will kick off the process, she said, adding she hopes to have some general results by the end of the year. “How to resolve parking in San Marco so we can have greater business in the square is important so we can have a plan when somebody comes and we don’t have to do it piecemeal,” she said.

Meanwhile, Stellers Gallery owner Scott Riley, who has rented the location for more than 20 years, said although he is thinking about it, he has no plans yet to move his business to another location. “We’ve been down this road twice before,” he said, adding in the past other contracts on the building have fallen through when the prospective buyers could not secure parking.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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