Neighborhood coalition forms to fight Presbyterian Church development

Neighborhood coalition forms to fight Presbyterian Church development
Rendering made by Jon Livingston, founder of Right Size San Marco, of the new Publix shopping center on the East San Marco property and the adjacent Park Place residential complex and parking garage proposed to be built on the present campus of South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church.

If there is one thing Jon Livingston of San Marco wants to make clear, it’s that his fledging neighborhood coalition, Right Size San Marco, is not against growth or infill development. At this time, it only takes umbrage against Park Place at San Marco, a residential multi-use project consisting of 141 apartments and a four-level, three-story parking garage that is proposed to be built in San Marco’s inner core adjacent to the East San Marco Publix and behind South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church. 

“Right Size San Marco is not against growth or development. It is our desire to keep the character and scale of the neighborhood,” said Livingston, noting the Park Place development will “change the face” of San Marco.

“We are not against development, but the character has to stay in. We don’t want to lose the historic out of San Marco. That’s why we live here. That’s what draws people to this neighborhood,” he continued. “There are reasons people live in 5 Points and Riverside. If you put this apartment complex as it’s proposed into the core of San Marco, it will then look like 5 Points or Riverside. In fact, you could take the current proposed plan for these apartments and drop them into Town Center, and they would fit perfectly.”

Lawn signs protesting the proposed Park Place development are popping up throughout San Marco
Lawn signs protesting the proposed Park Place development are popping up throughout San Marco

Right Size San Marco was founded by Livingston and his North Alexandria Place neighbors, Ned Clark and his wife, Lakshmi Gopal, all of whom own homes that border Mitchell Avenue and will be in the shadow of the development’s parking garage. 

The neighborhood group has rapidly grown from a few concerned homeowners in the Whatley Park neighborhood to a coalition of nearly 300 residents, families and local business owners, many who have joined the coalition’s group on Facebook, Livingston said. 

Nearly 20 residents attended a group meeting Nov. 10 in Whatley Park to discuss fighting the development. Already 100 signs have been distributed and been seen popping up on lawns throughout San Marco, even as far as River Road, signaling a silent protest to the Park Place development, and 200 more have been ordered and will soon be populating the neighborhood, he said. In addition, nearly 300 residents attended a Town Hall meeting in Harvin Hall at South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, which was sponsored by the San Marco Preservation Society to view renderings and listen to church officials and the developers discuss their plans. 

Right Size San Marco’s beef is that Park Place at San Marco is being built alongside East San Marco’s Publix shopping center, which will bring a 40,000 square foot, two-story grocery store, restaurants and retail into the heart of San Marco. Regency Centers, which is developing the long vacant East San Marco site, plans to break ground in the spring of 2020.

Meanwhile, Herbert Realty Services is proposing to build an apartment complex and parking garage on 2.1 acres next door on land currently owned by South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church. 

“The apartment complex proposal is too big, too dense, too tall, and inappropriate for the heart of San Marco, especially with two sides bordering single-family residential neighborhoods,” said Livingston in a Next Door posting. “At the core, this is not about the appearance of an apartment complex trying to look ‘San Marco.’ Our issue is how this development will affect everyone visiting the area. If the apartments move forward as planned, they will change the inherent character of San Marco by lowering property values and towering over million-dollar single-family homes,” he said, adding that the apartment complex will be the largest building in the entire San Marco district. Add additional neighborhood cut-through traffic to an already congested area and this reduces safety and security, he said. 

The group’s other concerns include increased traffic congestion, overdevelopment, a loss of San Marco’s charm, lower property values, a loss of privacy and views for the residents on Mango Place and North Alexandria Place, diminished green space, and decreased quality of life.

Livingston also said lighting from the top level of the garage will increase light pollution and “potentially change the southern entry into San Marco.” He also worries that because Herbert Realty Services put a first-right-of-offer clause into its contract with the church, the sanctuary could be sold, demolished and eventually replaced with apartments. 

“While the church desires to build a sustainable church and stay onsite, the church currently is not viable,” Livingston continued. Ongoing facility expenses and low membership is an issue and is the reason they are trying to sell the property they have had in hand for decades. While the church and the neighborhood do not want the church to leave, South Jax is part of a nationwide trend that many churches are facing. The removal of the church sanctuary is a significant concern that needs attention. While maybe not today, changing the rezoning to a PUD paves the way for the sale of the entire property,” he said, noting 141 units could easily turn into 170 units with the removal of the sanctuary. 

Although he is not a church member, Livingston claimed that the congregation was not told about the first-right-of-offer clause before or after it voted. He said that although the $2.3 million sale of the land might help the church in the short term, with only 104 parking spaces in the new garage, it will eventually cap its membership due to a lack of parking. “If Herbert succeeds in finalizing the first right of offer, the main southern entry to San Marco could be more apartments,” he said. “South Jax Presbyterian Church is currently trying to change the zoning, and everything is moving quickly.”

Recognizing that nothing is yet in stone and the church can still influence the look of the development and possibly put the brakes on the sale, Livingston said his goal is to get the developer, church, and residents together to discuss a more favorable plan. 

One suggestion he made was to have the developer reduce the garage to a two-level structure with fewer parking spaces for church members and allow the congregants to park on adjacent streets in the neighborhood and walk to church as they did in the old days. Having a smaller parking garage would cost the developer less money allowing for fewer apartments to be built on the church property. 

Another idea would be for the church to back out of the deal completely and try to put a faith-based assisted living complex on the land, he said.

“My thing is as a San Marco resident, this just doesn’t affect my neighborhood, it affects everybody going through San Marco, with the addition of Publix and the additional traffic. Do you want the southern entrance of San Marco to be apartments or do you want it to be something better?

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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