San Marco residents debate Flying Iguana parking concerns

San Marco residents debate Flying Iguana parking concerns
Parking has become an issue now that the Flying Iguana has applied to take over the space currently inhabited by Stellers Gallery in San Marco Square.

It was standing room only, with 10 or more sitting on the floor in the center aisle of Preservation Hall, when Attorney Paul Harden of San Marco addressed the crowd at a Town Hall meeting July 14. The San Marco Preservation Society convened the meeting to discuss the parking plan if and when the Flying Iguana, a new dining facility, is built on San Marco Square.

Harden represents Al Mansur, owner of the popular Al’s Pizza chain, who has a contract to purchase the building at 1409 Atlantic Blvd., now occupied by Stellers Gallery. It is Mansur’s plan to install a 150-seat upscale Mexican restaurant, similar to the one he owns in Neptune Beach, on the site.

In addition to Harden, several other notables in attendance included Jacksonville City Council President Lori Boyer, who represents San Marco, former San Marco Preservation Society President Mary Toomey and Chris Hagan, chairman of the Planning Commission.

  Mansur has applied to the city’s Planning Commission 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 enough parking to make his application palatable to the city, while requesting a deviation to reduce the minimum number of required off-street parking spaces from 43 to eight. Zoning regulations require that he provide at least 43 spaces for his customers to use, and Hardin said he had recently amended the application originally requesting zero spaces to eight, stating the restaurant will have 12 employees, and that eight spaces are available in the rear of the building.

The Stellers Gallery building is already zoned to accommodate restaurants, said Boyer, noting Mansur’s application would be heard by the city’s Planning Commission, which will make the final decision whether to grant the waivers and parking exception.

The commission had agreed to consider the Flying Iguana application July 21, but deferred the discussion at Harden’s request so that the matter could be discussed at the town meeting first. Because the notice of public hearing had already been sent out, Hagan said the public would be allowed to speak July 21, but no decision would be made, and the public hearing would be continued when the commission considers the issue at a subsequent meeting.

At the end of the meeting, Toomey agreed the Society will hold another town meeting prior to the Planning Commission’s public hearing, which most likely will be scheduled in September.

As of press time, no date had been set for either future meeting.

At the start of the July 14 meeting, Harden said Mansur intends to open “the Ruth Chris of Mexican restaurants.” He noted every other business in the Square has successfully received a liquor license, liquor distance waiver and parking exception. Harden said he is currently negotiating with two off-site parking lots in the San Marco area in order to provide valet services for off-site parking. He declined to specify which parking lots were being considered, whether or where a valet station would be placed near the restaurant or if a shuttlebus would be used to ferry customers to and from a remote parking lot.

“Obviously nobody in the Square has that many spaces, and there have been waivers for every restaurant,” Harden said. “Until recently no one has been required to supply off-site parking. I know there have been some issues so we decided to do that as part of our application process.”

Harden said he’s already held cordial meetings with both the San Marco Merchants Association and representatives from Southside Baptist Church. He said he intends to find answers to the church’s questions and concerns and is available to meet with any group that wants to discuss the restaurant’s application.

While nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting said they appreciate the quality and energy Mansur’s restaurant would bring to San Marco Square, for many residents as well as members of Southside Baptist Church, it is the Flying Iguana’s request for a parking exception that is causing concern.

Harden insisted the Flying Iguana is not planning to use the church parking lot behind Stellers Gallery but admitted Flying Iguana diners would also be free to park wherever they like.

It is possible for the Planning Commission to approve the application “with conditions,” said Harden. “The church asked for a limitation on our hours of operation on Sunday, which we’ve agreed to do, and the parking issue, which we’ve agreed to do,” Harden said.

During the meeting, Thomas Lee, a Southside Baptist Church trustee, said his church is “100 percent” against the new restaurant application. “Our prayers are that Mr. Mansur’s restaurants may prosper everywhere but just not there,” he said. “We’re against it because it’s going to affect our church and what we do.”

Although based on past experience, Lee said he expects his church may not be able to prevent the Planning Commission from granting Flying Iguana with a liquor license or distance waiver. Still, the church plans to fight both as well as the parking exception, he said.

When the Planned Unit Development to build the parking lot was approved 20 years ago, it specified that the church would share the lot with the community but have exclusive use of the entire parking lot all day Sunday, Wednesday evenings after 5 p.m. and whenever the church holds special events such as weddings or funerals, said Cindy Graves, a church member. In order to keep the noise level down, the parking lot’s hours were restricted to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., she said.

If the city approves of the application, the church may be forced to do something it really doesn’t want to do – contract with a parking management company and charge daily for the use of its lot or install gates and barriers allowing only church members to use the lot during the specified times when church is in session, said one church member.

In a meeting between Harden and the San Marco Merchants Association board, the association agreed it would monitor use of the lot during times church is in session, said Harden. After the meeting, Anita Vining, president of the San Marco Merchants Association said the SMMA board is “positively in favor” of having the Flying Iguana join other businesses on the square but wants to find a parking solution. “Nobody wants to offend the church,” she said.

During the meeting, Toomey said the San Marco Preservation Society had not yet formed an opinion on whether the application should be granted.

However, Eddie Fink, a longtime owner of several commercial buildings on the Square took issue that SMMA’s board could unilaterally make a decision without a vote of all the merchants.

“The problem is that the Square is at its capacity. The idea that you are going to have valet parking doesn’t make sense,” said Fink. “I cannot feasibly think customers are going to come to Flying Iguana and park in some remote station. They’re not. They are going to fill up the spaces nearby. They are going to fill up the church’s parking lot and the spaces near the residences. (Securing off-site parking) doesn’t address the reality of what goes on every day in the Square. I don’t want my tenants or any of the merchants at the risk of any additional burden.”

More than one resident expressed concern that a lack of parking would “choke” residential streets, blocking alleys and driveways. One San Marco Place resident said cars often line both sides of his street making it impossible to pass. “We’ve had over six cars head to head backed up to Hendricks on one end and the fire station on the other,” he said. “No one could go anywhere. They had to back out one at a time onto the street. San Marco Place should really become a one-way street, but I understand that is difficult, too.”

The “root of the problem” is safety, said another resident. “If you’ve lived in San Marco for years you will see the same car circle around the Square three or four times. But with this it will not be one car but three or four. The first time they will go five miles per hour. The second they may go 10 and they are running stop signs. Eventually they will be going 40 mph. We are putting rational people in an irrational situation,” he said, noting unattended delivery trucks block streets hamper ambulances and fire trucks access.

Many wondered what the “big picture” for the Square is in terms of parking, and asked Boyer if the police would enforce violations. “Likely not,” replied Boyer. “It is unrealistic to expect we are going to get more police coverage or more parking enforcement just because you have more businesses opening,” she said. “The budget controls how many police officers we have and where we have the most severe amount of crime is where they go.”

Granada resident Kris Barnes encouraged everyone to be positive. “If we don’t keep upgrading and adding to our draw over here on the Southside we may become the dying neighborhood. If you don’t have change, things will get very stale. To say this can’t happen because you can’t find parking isn’t fair.”

Another resident concurred. “We need to keep thinking forward. We don’t want to end up with a Square that could be vacant. We can’t keep thinking the sky is falling all the time,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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