City Council approves Park Place San Marco

City Council approves Park Place San Marco
Planning Commission green lights Park Place at San Marco

Right Size San Marco threatens to appeal decision

Residential construction may soon be coming to San Marco Square.

Despite objections from the San Marco Preservation Society and the neighborhood group, Right Size San Marco, South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church has persevered to see the Jacksonville City Council approve its bid to rezone its nearly three-acre property so that a large portion of the campus can be sold and a 133-unit apartment complex and parking garage built on the site.

The historic church, which claims it can no longer afford to maintain the buildings on two-thirds of its property first received unanimous approval for its application from the City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) Feb. 19 at City Hall. The vote in favor came after a contentious five-hour public hearing and heartfelt arguments against the plan by At-large Group 4 Councilman Matt Carlucci, who is not a member of LUZ. 

On Feb. 25, City Council voted 17-1 to approve the amended application, which would allow a four-story, 49.5-foot residential complex to be built within the San Marco Overlay, which is a zoning ordinance that mandates buildings shall not exceed 35 feet within its boundaries. Carlucci, who lives in the adjacent neighborhood south of the proposed development, cast the only dissenting vote.

The City Council approved the application, which consisted of two amended ordinances, 2019-750 and 2019-751, under the threat of appeal by members of Right Size San Marco, a grassroots neighborhood group consisting of more than 700 members.

The Council also refused to act on a request to have a formal quasi-judicial public hearing on the plan. According to the Council’s rules, rule 6.301 states that such requests need to be filed at least seven days prior to the LUZ Committee public hearing, making the request “untimely,” said Shannon Eller of the City’s Office of the General Counsel. Because no council member moved to have the rule waived, Council President Scott Wilson decided to drop the matter and get on with business.

“I’m just pleased that the Council saw the merit of the Planning Commission and what the LUZ members voted on,” said Bill Ware, of Harbert Realty, which plans to purchase the church property and develop the project. “I’m not worried about the appeal. I feel we have a strong position as does the city, and we defer to the city in that respect. We’re anxious to get started and will go back to work and continue to develop the project inside. We’re excited.”

Mark Middlebrook, an elder with South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, shared Ware’s sentiments. “This is a big hurdle today. The City attorney thinks what they’ve done is correct, and what they are about to do is well within the law,” he said. “We feel the result is the correct result, and we will continue to work with the community and with the builder to build the best project we can. You can never prevent anybody from bringing an action or an appeal, but the appeal wouldn’t be against the church. It would be against the city. Nothing will happen until it’s resolved,” he admitted, claiming he wasn’t worried.

“We are happy because we’ve worked hard for three years to get the project to go through, and we’re very happy with the result,” Middlebrook continued. “I’m not happy with the discord in the community, and I’m not happy with the miscommunication of the facts that I see on Facebook. I think they will be happy with what it looks like. A lot of information wasn’t conveyed on this particular topic, but property values will go up when this happens. Their homes are going to be worth more, that’s just the math. We’re not trying to hurt anybody. We’re just trying to maximize the benefit and use of our property,” he said, noting that Harbert Realty was the only developer willing to provide the necessary parking garage that the church needs to remain viable.

The amendment to 2019-750 added three site-specific conditions to the church’s planned unit development (PUD): 1.) Multi-family residential uses shall be limited to 133 units; 2.) Non- residential floor area shall be limited to 96,000 square feet (garage, all floors) and 25,000 +/- square feet (existing church, all floors); 3.) To ensure compatibility with adjacent uses and to protect neighborhood scale and character through transition zones, the bulk, massing, and height restrictions, the new building height shall be limited to a calculated weighted average not to exceed 35 feet across the length of the development from Alford Place to Mitchell Avenue as follows: A sum of the height to the predominant roof line (ridge or parapet wall) of that portion of the building multiplied by the length of that portion of a building divided by the overall length of permissible building within the minimum setback.

In other words, to bring the development into compliance with the San Marco Overlay, the calculated weighted average height formula, which has never before been used in Jacksonville, averages the 49.5-foot height of the residential building with the 26-foot, two-story parking garage also to be built on the site so that the combined heights would not exceed 35 feet.

Meanwhile, the amendment to 2019-751 was approved subject to two conditions: 1.) Sidewalks adjacent to the on-street parking shall be a minimum width of six feet; 2.) The architectural design of the parking garage façade shall be subject to the review and approval of the Planning and Development Department at the time of verification of substantial compliance of the PUD. The parking garage shall incorporate differentiated building walls, vertical architectural features, decorative detailing and architectural elements and changes in building materials and color.

Prior to the LUZ meeting, the Jacksonville Planning Commission had voted unanimously in favor of the rezoning and the project during its meeting Jan. 23. Also supporting the plan was the Jacksonville Planning and Development Department and its director, Bill Killingsworth.

The San Marco Merchants Association (SMMA), led by President Joseph Carlucci, also supported the rezoning and the development, with SMMA Executive Director George Foote speaking in favor of the project at both the LUZ and City Council meetings.

During the City Council meeting, 50 citizens, 14 of whom spoke during the public hearing, and 36 who submitted speaker cards to the council, also supported the initiative.

Objections voiced

Speaking on behalf of the San Marco Preservation Society (SMPS) was President Linzee Ott, who said the society favored putting residential housing at that location but objected to certain aspects of the application including the change of rezoning to Urban Priority, which would allow the higher density of 60 units per acre, and the use of the calculated weighted average height as a way to have the project conform to the San Marco Overlay.

In total, 13 speakers spoke against the project at the City Council meeting with 10 more submitting speaker cards opposing the project.

Members of Right Size San Marco also lobbied against the project during the City Council meeting. Right Size founder Jon Livingston said his group had no problem with church’s desire to remain viable by selling the property so that multi-use residential housing might be built, but complained that the application in its current form went against the San Marco Overlay and the San Marco Neighborhood Action plan. It is Right Size San Marco’s desire that the apartment building be limited to three stories and 114 units.

In a SMPS Town Meeting held Feb. 5 at South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, Andy Allen of Corner Lot Development Group in San Marco said reducing the number of units would not be financially viable. Corner Lot Development is partnering with Harbert Realty of Birmingham, Ala., to develop the project. Included in the purchase and sale agreement between Harbert and the church is the requirement that the developer build a parking garage and set aside approximately 100 spaces for church use on Sunday and Wednesday evenings with the public being able to access the parking when church is not in session.

“It’s simply not economically feasible to build 114 units. Also, it’s not architecturally feasible, the way that the project sits right now, to build three stories of multifamily at 35 feet,” said Allen during the Town Hall. “We want to build something that we are proud of and that will be in the community for a long, long time.”

Disappointed with the Council’s decision, Livingston said after the meeting that his group had no choice but to mount an appeal in court. Right Size San Marco has hired Clifford Shepard, an attorney from Maitland, Fla., and former San Marco resident, to represent it and has contracted with Tom Atkins, an urban planner, to serve as an expert witness. Both men spoke against the application at the LUZ meeting, and Atkins voiced objections at the City Council meeting.

“This fight is just starting,” said Livingston in an email. “The city’s action of pushing an 11th-hour amendment so the developer can use a calculation never used in Jacksonville before goes against the zoning code, its intent, and the standards of the San Marco Overlay. The city’s callous actions have given this community more resolve than ever to file an appeal. Not only is the city going against set height restrictions, but they are also going against standards they, of all people, have set in place. Who should we turn to if we want our laws to be maintained? Why have zoning laws, when you can spot zone and give the developer precisely what they want whenever you want? It’s absurd,” he said.

“Giving developers the ability to change standards on the fly is a dangerous and slippery slope. Councilmember (LeAnna) Cumber said the San Marco Overlay is a ‘living, breathing document,’ and finds the new height calculation agreeable. We adamantly disagree. Laws are in place for a reason. Changing them on the fly, in the last second, is not acceptable,” he continued.

“Allowing developers to dictate standards, like what 35 feet means, to benefit their own needs, is wrong on so many levels. Do developers run this city? It sure looks like it. We met with numerous City Council members over the past month. Many said if a council member in your district wants a project, we are fighting an uphill battle. Why? We expect votes based on current law, not feelings, or the desire of reciprocation. Our question? Why are the city staff and our councilwoman fighting so hard for something that goes against the city’s laws? From the outset, we have said if you stay within the laws, and build apartments under 35 feet, we will support the project. If you can’t comply with the laws in place, no compromise is on the table. We will be appealing if the city council votes to approve this development as is.”

To appease its neighborhood opponents, Harbert’s development team had many meetings over the past few months with representatives of SMPS, SMMA, city planning officials, council members and representatives of Right Size San Marco. They modified their application, reducing the number of residential units from 143 to 133 and lowered the parking garage from a three-story, four-level structure to a two-story, three-level building with 276 spaces. The developer also removed 10 residential units from the side of the parking garage bordering Mitchell Avenue, which is adjacent to some single-family homes, allowing for a wider, 30-foot setback between the garage and the road. Representatives from Group 4 Design and Doug Skiles of EnVision Design + Engineering also consulted with Bill Jaycox, an architect hired to by SMPS to consult on the project. Many of Jaycox’s suggestions were incorporated into the final design of the building, Skiles said.

During the LUZ meeting, Nancy Powell of Riverside Avondale Preservation expressed her concern about the use of calculated weighted height averaging as a way to possibly skirt restrictions within an overlay. Other speakers during the public comment session also expressed their qualms about the method being used as a precedent and its effect on overlays in other neighborhoods throughout the city.

To allay fears that the amended application might set a precedent and allow developers to override Overlay legislation in other neighborhoods, LUZ Chairman and Councilman Danny Becton said there was nothing “deviant” about the amendment. “The amendment was put in place in order to eliminate the concerns of the community that this would be a slippery slope and could go elsewhere,” he said. “It was put in place to say, ‘here and only here are these things going to be allowed.’”

During the City Council meeting, Carlucci said the community had developed the San Marco Overlay because of the rapid demolition of houses and condos that were being proposed a few years back and an overwhelming desire within the community to preserve the area’s village-like atmosphere. “The Overlay is like a compact with the people of San Marco. It’s to be followed, and 35 feet is 35 feet,” he said. “Believe me this will set a precedent. This is the ordinance code. It says 35 feet on this parcel, not 26 feet here and not 49.5 feet over there. In 2016, Councilmember Boyer tried to nail it down so it stays 35 feet,” he said, questioning the process by adding that the amendment should be re-advertised before being voted upon since it was only introduced at the beginning of the LUZ meeting six days before.

Several Councilmembers quizzed Killingsworth on the specifics of how the calculated weighted average height formula worked. Killingsworth said the amendment addressed three items – permissibility, scale and precedent. Multi-family housing is permitted on the site, he said, and the average weighted height was a good vehicle to bring a transition from the height of the buildings in the adjacent East San Marco PUD, where Publix is to be built, toward the single-family houses south of the development. Because the Urban Priority land use designation allows for 60 units per acre, averaging the 49.5-foot height of the four-story apartment building with the reduced height of the 26-foot garage will allow the developer to maintain the same mass that the Overlay requires, he said.

Killingsworth also countered the suggestion that he was permitting “spot zoning” by calculating the height this way. All the uses that the developer had requested are permissible within Urban Priority land use and the Overlay does not specify how height is to be calculated, leaving it up his to interpretation of the zoning code, he said.

Killingsworth also noted that it only takes 10 votes on the Council make it is possible to change the Overlay. “It only takes 10 votes to enact a law and the Overlay is just a law,” he said.

Recognizing members of the community, SMPS, and SMMA are severely “split” on the issue, Cumber said she agreed with Killingsworth, LUZ, and the City Planning Department in their approval of the amended application. Until the City Council approved the new East San Marco PUD in January, Regency Centers had the ability to build a massive 7-story, 245-unit development on its property across the street from the church, because its zoning allowed for 100.4 units per acre, she said, noting between the two developments, as many as 350 units could have flooded the area. “The amendment caps this at 133 making it 46.6 units per acre, which is completely appropriate,” Cumber said. “I think we are in a better place.”

When District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor expressed concern the city might spend taxpayer dollars countering an appeal they might lose, Shannon Eller of the City’s Office of the General Counsel sought to alleviate her concerns. “We’re comfortable with what Mr. Killingsworth has put forward and comfortable with the work the LUZ Committee did and the record that has been built. It’s not unreasonable. It doesn’t violate any laws. It can be defended,” she said.

Her words must have set DeFoor’s mind at ease because she voted in favor of the plan. “I’m going to support it. I’m going to support my fellow councilwoman, but that doesn’t mean I would support it in my district,” DeFoor said. “So, I just want to make sure my district understands that.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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