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City and Suburban Heights residents reach impasse on St. Michael’s development

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission held a virtual workshop Monday night on the proposed rezoning of the property known as St. Michael’s, at the corner of NW 43rd Street and NW 23rd Avenue. Mayor Lauren Poe opened the meeting by saying, “It’s just an opportunity to see where we are… if a path presents itself to move forward, or is the path forward to leave the property the way it is now, with no change in zoning, and move on with our lives?”

Poe then introduced Stephanie Marchman of Gray Robinson, who was hired to moderate the session. Marchman previously worked in the City Attorney’s office for Gainesville. 

The workshop was held to try to get past an impasse reached at the November 3, 2021, City Commission Special Meeting. The original plan for a single-story commercial project with a drive-through, which had been developed through months of meetings with neighbors of the property, was presented to the City Plan Board in February and then to the city commission in April, 2021. The City Plan Board vote was 3-3, which effectively was a motion to deny the petition. When the city commission heard the plan in April, there was a motion by Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, with a second from Commissioner David Arreola, to adopt the petition with the following modifications: Change it from mixed-use low intensity to urban mixed-use, no drive-throughs, allow more square footage on ground floor and upper floors, allow heights under urban mixed-use land use, allow the City to construct a park on the conservation land, and require the developer to make their best effort to save heritage trees. That motion passed 4-2, with former Commissioner Gail Johnson and Commissioner Harvey Ward in dissent and former Commissioner Gigi Simmons absent.

At the November meeting, the developer presented a plan that was in line with the April vote and included up to six floors and 220 housing units, with 10% of the units designated “affordable”; that plan was nearly unanimously opposed by the people who spoke during two hours of public comment. Arreola made a motion to abandon that plan and ask staff to bring back a plan “that is more contextually appropriate with what is across the street” but later withdrew the motion after it was clear it wouldn’t pass. In the end, the commission voted to hold this workshop.

Marchman noted that the current zoning on the property—which would continue to be the zoning if the commission took no action—is an office zoning, which includes a number of office uses, up to 200,000 square feet, and a maximum of 69 residential units. The building can be three stories high, up to eight stories with a bonus. Marchman recommended that the affected parties and members of the city commission focus on the November 2021 plan “and take the opportunity to provide the developer specific feedback on what you support.” She pointed to this chart that compared the three options under consideration.

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Kevin Frazier, representing the developer, Wilson Development Group, said they were “caught off guard, as everybody was, about the direction the application was taken” because they had never brought up that sort of concept during meetings with the neighbors. He said the problem was to have a financially viable project that met the City’s goals for additional housing and aligned with the promises they had made to the neighbors. He pointed out that supply chain issues and the increased costs of building supplies, labor, and interest rates would have an impact on what is financially viable.

Affected parties make their case

The first affected party, Harry Shaw, said that he had again been taken by surprise by the information presented by Marchman and that he would need more time to digest it. He also said the neighbors had thought that a workshop format would involve give-and-take in an attempt to come to a mutual agreement between the neighbors, the developer, and the City. He said he had expected a “fairer and more promising arrangement” than the presentation-only format and noted that he was following the format “under protest.”

“[This] misplaced monstrosity seems to have become the zombie proposal which will not die.” – Harry Shaw, neighbor and affected party

Shaw called the April 2021 motion from Hayes-Santos an “April surprise, a supposedly spontaneous proposal by the mayor, with support from others on the dais… falsely flying the banner of affordable housing that would be affordable in name only.” He was dismayed that “what we consider the outrageous proposal, that never should have been born in the first place, and which had been solemnly rejected by citizens and residents, is once again front and center at the top of the ticket… This… misplaced monstrosity seems to have become the zombie proposal which will not die.”

Meredith Goodrich, who lives in Suburban Heights, said the developer had shown them a plan for 69 units of affordable housing: “I think that would be wonderful if they just did affordable housing, just 69 units by right… It was not mixed use, it was only affordable housing… Low-income senior housing would be wonderful there.”

Chris Goodrich said he wanted to “emphasize that the November plan is not appropriate for the location” because it provides no transition between the different zones. It would put a six-story building next to single-family housing and a cemetery, with mixed use on all the opposing corners. “It’s an example of spot zoning, which tends to bring bad outcomes. I’m favoring no zoning change, and I would propose as an alternative… something appropriate like Urban Use 4, which is a similar usage to office.”

Tracy Staples said she still supported the original plan from the developer that had been worked out with the neighbors.

Commission discussion

Poe asked Marchman whether she had found “any sort of common ground or consistency in goals and hopeful outcomes between all of those folks?” Marchman replied that she heard an interest in keeping the original plan. She asked the developer whether the original plan was still on the table, with or without a drive-through, and he said it was, with a drive-through “a key component of that [planned development].”

Poe said he was hearing three options: 1) The original planned development (PD), a one-story building with a coffee shop and drive-through; 2) The November planned development (6 stories, 220 housing units); 3)Take no action, let the developer develop “by right.” 

Hayes-Santos said the one-story PD would be “the most car-centric zoning we have in the city. It would be the lowest height in the city at one story… I think it goes directly against the goals of the City… Our area is growing quickly… The housing will be built, it will be built somewhere, and if it’s not built here, it will be built further west, which will create more traffic that everyone is concerned about, it will have more environmental effects… There won’t be a wall between the neighborhoods, there won’t be money for the cemetery, there won’t be affordable housing, there won’t be a City park there, won’t be a permanent conservation land… I hope we can move forward with a plan that brings housing. I think five stories is in scale with the property across the street.”

Ward was not in favor of leaving the existing zoning in place—“It doesn’t meet the goals that the neighborhood has asked for, and it doesn’t meet the goals that other folks trying to get something different and better have asked for.” He said he would not support a drive-through: “I drive down NW 13th Street every day, and I’m not going to be a part of that… putting that drive-through traffic onto 43rd Street or 24th Avenue is something that I think we would all regret in the coming months and years.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she was concerned about the cemetery and that it felt “invasive” to have a five- or six-story building overlooking that “sacred space.” She asked if the developer had considered other properties; he replied that there aren’t any available to develop like this in the immediate vicinity. Frazier said the property is “unique in how it’s positioned within that market and how close in proximity it is to residents and consumers… that was the only site in that part of Gainesville that made sense for those tenants.” He added that he had never pursued the deal for the purpose of doing a residential project: “That was never my intention.”

“I will always prioritize housing, families that don’t have housing that meets their needs in their budget, over people that are already comfortably housed.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Commissioner Reina Saco said she would support the November proposal: “I will always prioritize housing, families that don’t have housing that meets their needs in their budget, over people that are already comfortably housed.”

Poe said he was “absolutely opposed” to any project with a drive-through, and the neighbors didn’t want the November proposal, “so that leaves us with the status quo, and that’s disappointing to me because I think we get the least out of that.”

Marchman asked if it would be possible for the developer to use more of the property (reducing the conservation portion and the park) so he could build a financially-viable residential project with fewer stories. Poe said, “That was a consistent promise of mine throughout, and I was not going to break that promise… from the very beginning, that was never on the table.”

“You know what, go do ‘by right,’ do what’s beneficial for you, what gives you a profit, and when we have no housing and our housing crisis gets worse, we know where to put the blame… I say to my colleagues, how much of a compromise do we go searching for when no compromise will ever be enough? And at what point do we choose to house people over bending over backwards?” – Saco

Saco praised the developer for being, on one hand, willing to put out the November proposal, “and the other part of me wants to say, you know what, go do ‘by right,’ do what’s beneficial for you, what gives you a profit, and when we have no housing and our housing crisis gets worse, we know where to put the blame.” She said anything the commission does would have some people opposing it, and she encouraged the other commissioners to consider whether it’s better to have “everyone be 100% placated” or “do something about the number one issue in our community… I say to my colleagues, how much of a compromise do we go searching for when no compromise will ever be enough? And at what point do we choose to house people over bending over backwards?”

Public comment

During public comment, people repeatedly brought up the fact that the commission had caused the problem by asking the developer to completely revise the proposal with a housing component and also complained that the format was not conducive to reaching a solution. They also pointed out that this didn’t start in April 2021, as was implied by Marchman’s initial summary; Suburban Heights residents have participated in discussions about this parcel for many years. 

“Y’all mucked it up, and this doesn’t help un-muck it” – Pastor Michael Rayburn

Pastor Michael Raburn said, “We are here… because the city commission… ignored what they worked out and went in a completely different direction that no one asked for.. and that was just shocking… This is not a workshop… There’s no dialogue… You’re still not listening… sometimes you were vilifying folks and clearly showed me you haven’t listened to them at all… You’ve got to let folks have space to dialogue with each other and collaborate with each other and work out a compromise that everyone can live with. They had done that without the city commission, and then y’all mucked it up, and this doesn’t help un-muck it… You can’t be so enamored of your ideals that you don’t listen to the realities of what people are telling you, and that’s where you are right now.”

The meeting had originally been scheduled for two hours, and at this point, the developer had to leave for another commitment, but the public continued to call in. Before Frazier left, he thanked everyone for their feedback and added, “Certainly we will be moving forward with something… we will do what we are allowed to do by right within the confines of the code.”

“This is some kind of bizarre Frankenstein hearing… neither a workshop nor a quasi-judicial hearing… I think you’ve managed to make the developer a victim, as well as the citizens of Gainesville victims in this case, and I hope that you’ll reconsider, go back to the original compromise proposal from April, and proceed from there.” – Kim Tanzer

Kim Tanzer made five points: 1) Many people shop at that intersection, so it’s a community-wide issue, not a neighborhood issue; 2) There were a number of legal flaws with the workshop—“this is some kind of bizarre Frankenstein hearing… neither a workshop nor a quasi-judicial hearing”; 3) She said it was impossible to evaluate what was proposed based on the drawings that were presented; 4) Affordable housing is generally considered to be 50% or 30% of an area’s Average Median Income (AMI), but the developer is proposing 120% AMI, “which means above average middle-class housing is what’s being called affordable, and that’s unreasonable”; 5) The Comprehensive Plan is not being followed. She said she supported going back to the drawing board—“I think you’ve managed to make the developer a victim, as well as the citizens of Gainesville victims in this case, and I hope that you’ll reconsider, go back to the original compromise proposal from April, and proceed from there.”

Robert Mounts said he had been “shocked” to learn that “by-right” allowed a three-story building to go to eight stories with a bonus. “Normally when you have a three-story building or a four-story building, the code provides for an extra floor, at most two, if you do certain things like provide affordable housing or structured parking and the like. But obviously this is another example of a very developer-friendly provision in the code, which tonight has been used to threaten the neighbors with what we can do by right. That’s shocking.”

Conclusion

After public comment, Poe said the developer was “clear about the path forward… my assumption is the applicant will be withdrawing his petition, and so the neighborhood will not have to worry about this coming up again because it looks like he’s going to take an alternative path forward. So that’s where we are.”

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