Proposed restaurant in Avondale receives green light

Proposed restaurant in Avondale receives green light
3563 St. Johns Avenue will soon be the site of another restaurant option in the Shoppes of Avondale

Against the recommendation of the City of Jacksonville Planning and Development Department and despite passionate pleas from Avondale residents, businesses, and property owners, the Planning Commission voted 5-3 to approve a request for a 120-seat restaurant to move into the Shoppes of Avondale without having to provide any off-street parking.

The applicant, property owner Thomas R. Lee, had requested an administrative deviation to reduce the number of required parking spaces from 10 to zero on behalf of his tenant, BMR Dining Group, registered in Ponte Vedra Beach, but with roots in New York. Lee had also applied for an exception for full service of all alcoholic beverages and outdoor sales and service. The eight-member Planning Commission  approved the exception 7-1 during its Aug. 18 meeting following a public hearing.

At the forefront of the issue for residents and other business owners was the fear that permitting 120-seats to utilize more than 5,000 square feet of space was an invitation to put in banquet rooms or a large bar area, neither of which count as seats toward the parking requirement.

The Planning Department had recommended approval of the exception with two conditions; one would limit the size of the restaurant to 2,500 square feet, thus prohibiting banquet space, and the other would ensure outside seating would meet all requirements for ADA accessibility and would not obstruct pedestrian traffic.

The administrative deviation to reduce parking requirements to zero, however, was not approved by Planning Department staff. “Because the applicant is proposing a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, they are creating a condition where the reduction is necessary. As noted in Condition 2 in the companion Zoning Exception, if the restaurant size and seating capacity were reduced, limiting the use to 2,500 square feet, the need for the parking reduction would be eliminated. The hardship is self-imposed,” the report noted.

At its Aug. 4 meeting, the Planning Commission had voted 3-3 on the application, thereby forcing the matter to be addressed again two weeks later. Following the 3-3 vote, the applicant’s attorney, Steve Diebenow of Driver, McAfee, Peek and Hawthorne, stated if the application was not approved his client would return to the commission with applications for two 100-seat restaurants.

“Some people interpreted that as a threat, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Diebenow. “It’s an economic reality. If something happens here that permits the use or something happens here that encourages a different use, then we will act accordingly.”

Diebenow re-iterated at the Aug. 18 meeting that the laws support parking waivers and service of all alcoholic beverages for restaurants of 100 seats or less. “The liquor use is permitted by the state,” he said, referring to House Bill 655, which established special zones in Jacksonville, including the Shoppes of Avondale, to allow small restaurants to be competitive by serving liquor, not just beer and wine.

The attorney also argued the request for a parking waiver for 120 seats was not a self-imposed hardship because two 100-seat restaurants in that space would require no parking, according to Ordinance 2012-339 which waives the requirement to provide 50 percent of the parking provision for restaurants with 100 seats or less. “This is not a situation created by the applicant or the tenant. There is no place to physically park a car on this site,” said Diebenow. “When the building was built, the parking requirements did not exist.”

Merchants speak out

Among those who spoke against the applications were Richard May, who owns property immediately adjacent to the location at 3563 St. Johns Ave., the former site of Cowford Traders in the Shoppes of Avondale. He noted within 100 feet of that site were five restaurants, with a total of 650 seats, in front of which are 36 parking spaces.

May was followed by John Winkler, a local attorney and owner of a property on Riverside Avenue behind the shop, Avondale merchants Dianne Garcia, Karin Tucker and Amy Hyde, Avondale property owner Frank Gallo, residents Alicia Grant and Dylan Phillips, and Adrienne Burke, executive director, Riverside Avondale Preservation.

In addition, 16 merchants submitted a letter to the Planning Commission, stating “the impact to smaller boutique shops would be detrimental to the survival of our businesses.”

The letter further stated “Our guests are frustrated by the lack of parking which prohibits them from accessing our stores. Our Avondale community needs a variety of shops to allow for varied parking demand.”

Commissioner Dawn Motes, one of three who voted against the administrative deviation, said the issue was not about upholding zoning codes, but about the reality of not enough parking in Avondale. “We have got to bring a solution to the table about parking and accommodating the traffic,” she said. Ben Davis also voted against the administrative deviation.

Jerry Friley, the commissioner who voted against both the administrative deviation and the exception, said by agreeing with the Planning Department staff’s recommendation to deny the parking waiver they were adhering to the laws on the books.

Most of the commissioners, while sympathetic to the arguments that parking is saturated and therefore creates hardships for the Avondale businesses and nearby residents, overall expressed the sentiment that a compromise had been presented by the applicant.

Parking in Avondale is frustrating, said Abel Harding, but it’s not this commission’s responsibility or authority to address. “It seems a compromise has been presented and that would hopefully lessen the burden of parking,” he said.

“The parking issue is a responsibility that falls on the city,” said Nicole Sanzosti Padgett, who voted to approve the administrative deviation.

“I agree parking is a concern there,” said Daniel Blanchard. “Perhaps there are more restaurants there than there need to be, I don’t know, but we don’t get to vote on that.” Blanchard said what the commission would be voting on is whether it makes sense to combine two potential 100-seat restaurants into one that seats 120.

In the end, five commissioners determined that one 120-seat restaurant in 5,400 square feet of space was better than dividing the space in half for two 100-seat restaurants, which would have no parking requirements.

“I think 120 seats is a better solution for parking,” said Padgett. Blanchard supported her comment, noting, “He’s doing something right to reduce the seating.”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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