City Council adopts North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan

City Council adopts North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan

With unanimous support of the City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, the City Planning and Development Department, the San Marco Preservation Society and the San Marco community at large, the Jacksonville City Council approved Ordinance 2018-264, a North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan, on Dec. 11 by a vote of 19-0.

The North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan, formerly known to the community as San Marco by Design, is a smart-growth document designed to help guide city planners when they evaluate applications for infill development in North San Marco, an area bordered by I-95 to the north, Kings Avenue and the Overland Bridge Expressway to the east, the St. Johns River to the west, and San Marco Square and Mitchell Avenue to the south. 

Consisting of a mix of commercial corridors – San Marco Boulevard, Hendricks Avenue, and Atlantic Boulevard – with multi- and single-family housing, North San Marco is considered a transitional area between the high-rise developments of the Southbank and the traditional residential neighborhoods that reside south of San Marco Square.

“Years ago, as we saw increasing pressure for redevelopment, what was once a two-story building on Kings Avenue or San Marco Boulevard might become a six-, or 10-, or 12-story building right next to residential,” explained District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, who sponsored the bill. “Part of this is to address, ‘How do we all live together? How do the residential neighborhoods continue to exist next to commercial development along those corridors and those transitions?’”

The purpose of the action plan is to set standards for building heights and recommend infrastructure improvements in order to enhance existing neighborhoods and commercial corridors, with the goal of maintaining the scale and density of the North San Marco area. As a supplemental addendum to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, its guidelines take priority and, in most instances, will require that zoning changes be consistent with its recommendations, said Boyer.

“There are two different types of documents, zoning and planning,” she said during a San Marco community meeting attended by nearly 100 residents Nov. 19 at Balis Community Center. “The Comprehensive plan is broader and more general, but it governs. Zoning needs to be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. It has a higher priority. It’s the trump card. A neighborhood action plan is adopted as a supplemental addendum – a supplement to the Comprehensive Plan. This doesn’t change zoning, but when it makes general recommendations for an area it will have importance when they are looking at rezoning applications in the future.”

Initiated by the San Marco Preservation Society approximately 10 years ago at a time when developers were bombarding the neighborhood with several ambitious infill projects, the North San Marco Action Plan provided the preservation society with a way to be proactive rather than reactive, said former SMPS President Andrew Dickson, who helped formulate the plan.

The guidelines divide North San Marco into 12 districts, each with its own perimeters for development. For instance, the Hospital District, where Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center was recently built, allows for taller structures up to 12 stories, while the more residential Old San Marco District permits buildings no higher than two stories. 

“The North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan will allow developers to know what the stakeholders have envisioned for each district. We think the certainty the document spells out will be welcomed by developers who will know what to expect, and by the folks who live and work in San Marco, who have the reasonable expectation that their neighborhood will stay a welcoming, walkable place to live and do business,” said Dickson in an email.

“The stakeholders that formed the steering committee were residents, urban planners, merchants, developers, and designers. They represented established institutions in Jacksonville government, business, retail, and community advocacy. They are folks who still live in and work in and around our neighborhood. At every step of the process, we held public townhall meetings and developed a pretty solid consensus of what we would like our neighborhood to look like in 30 to 50 years.

“The neighborhood action plan will stay in the City Planning Department and will form the institutional memory for our neighborhood even after the current generation of planners have moved on,” Dickson continued. “This will be a solid and valuable resource for all stakeholders. While not an overlay or a form-based code, the document has the flexibility to accommodate new ideas while staying grounded in the environment that’s already built.”  

Valerie Feinberg, a planning professional who served as chief architect of the North San Marco Neighborhood Action Plan from the very beginning, said the process of creating the guidelines was almost as important as the result.

“During the process of developing the plan, we pursued many improvement projects along the way as funding opportunities became available,” Feinberg said. “The Square was reconfigured based on our commitment to enhance the pedestrian environment and increase safety for all road users – walkers, bicyclists, and cars. Safe Routes to School funding was awarded to make significant infrastructure improvements in and around Landon Middle School. This was a direct result of our focus on creating a healthy community and our partnerships with Florida Blue and the Health Planning Council.”

In her pitch for the plan before the City’s Land Use and Zoning Committee Dec. 4, Boyer admitted SMPS had been prepared to go to the city with the ordinance in 2014 but she put on the brakes because she felt it needed more specificity in its language and recommendations. “It was too wishful and sounded more like ‘how nice it would be if this happened,’” she said. “I wanted more concrete information in it, so they did [revise it].

“I probably should have gotten to it three years ago,” she said. “I had committed to members of my community that I wouldn’t let my term go by without addressing it.”

Boyer also applauded the City’s Planning and Development Department’s suggestion to amend the ordinance, requiring it to be reviewed every 10 years so it can recommend to the City Council whether it needs to be updated, rescinded, or readopted as submitted. “I think it’s a great idea to open it up in 10 years to make sure it’s still relevant,” she said. “There are a lot of recommendations in it we’ve actually followed without it being in effect as a neighborhood action plan.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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