Proposed Southbank residential tower access design opposed by neighboring businesses

Proposed Southbank residential tower access design opposed by neighboring businesses
Rendering for the 13-story mixed-use development on Prudential Drive in relation to the Aetna/Baptist Health tower. (Rendering by Nils Bolton Associates)

All things considered, the road from initial presentation to development approval for a new 13-story apartment tower on a “challenging” site on the Southbank has not been a long one – until now.

Beginning in October 2016, when Ventures Development Group first presented its concepts for the residential tower to the Downtown Development Review Board (DDRB), the project has moved along at a relatively fast pace. After a November 2016 workshop, the DDRB granted approval with conditions on January 19, 2017 and then put its seal on the finalized plan June 1, but not without first hearing voices of concern.

The 2.9-acre property is located between the Acosta Bridge and the Aetna/Baptist Health building. Both Baptist Health and the Aetna Building property owner had legal representation at the hearing to address parking and traffic concerns.

Attorney Paul Harden, speaking on behalf of Baptist Health, indicated his client would be adversely affected by traffic issues due to ingress and egress from the proposed residential development.

“The project is focused on access to the river, when the real problems are access to the street,” said Harden, stating that vehicular access to the emergency rooms for Baptist Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital are just 25 feet from Ventures’ proposed driveway onto Prudential Drive.

This future access to the 300-unit complex runs along a narrow stretch of property parallel to railroad tracks. Seen from above, the project site is described by the applicant as “flag-shaped,” with the flag abutting the riverfront and the Aetna property, while the flagpole runs along the railroad tracks, ending at Prudential Drive.

Harden said the current access is part of Ventures’ design and therefore a self-imposed difficulty. “Over the last four months we’ve been working with Ventures on an alternative access,” said Harden. “We’ve offered to swap land, but just haven’t come to an agreement.”

Ventures’ local attorney, Steve Diebenow of Driver, McAfee, Peek & Hawthorne, said his client would be open to reconfiguring the site access to connect to Palm Avenue rather than Prudential Drive.

Harden said if access wasn’t resolved during the DDRB hearing, it would be “ratcheted up” to the DIA, then City Council and wherever it ends up past there” and become an issue down the road.

Harden also argued the reduction in required parking would affect an already “under-parked” Southbank peninsula.

“We do not believe the request meets the criteria for a deviation for parking. This peninsula is way, way under-parked,” Harden said. Baptist Health is currently constructing a seven-story parking garage, which will result in more than 2,250 parking spaces by January 2018.

The Aetna property owner, GV IP Jacksonville Owner LLC, was represented by Holland & Knight Attorney Daniel Bean, who indicated his client had the same concerns about access, parking, traffic and safety.

“Ventures’ traffic study concludes only 50 percent of the trips generated by the apartment complex will be made by automobile. We don’t believe that’s an appropriate representation,” said Bean. “The remaining 50 percent of the trips would be made by alternate means, such as walking, bicycling or transit, but you’re not going to the grocery store or to school on a bike. We think relying on that traffic study is ill-advised.”

Bill Schilling, a member of the DDRB, spoke on behalf of Baptist Health as an expert on traffic issues, stating access to the Ventures site is a flaw in the design and will present an issue in the future.

“In 350 feet you have an active railroad crossing, you have the proposed project driveway and you have a mid-block crossing [on Prudential for Aetna employees] that doesn’t see just 50 or 100 pedestrians in the morning and the afternoon, it’s measured in the hundreds,” said Schilling. “Now is the time to work out the access while we’re in the design review stage.”

Despite the opposition, the DDRB voted 4-1 to give Ventures its five requested deviations, including the reduction in required parking spaces from 559 to a minimum of 337 spaces; altered landscaping along adjacent railroad tracks at the east end of the development to provide a buffer; an increase in the allowed building height from 60 feet to 190 feet; reduced setbacks or “build to” lines due to site constraints, and reduced setbacks from the riverfront bulkheads in certain areas from 50 feet to 25 feet.

If Harden does “ratchet up” the proposed project as he indicated, the road just got longer and perhaps bumpier.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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