When it comes to density, more is less

By Susan Hardee Steger
April 13, 2017 1:00 a.m.

On April 18, the Fernandina Beach City Commission will consider the second reading of  an ordinance to increase density in the Central Business District (CBD). The commission chambers will be packed with citizens urging a no vote. Naysayers are adamant in their belief that an increase in density will bring more people, more traffic, and increased parking demands. But don’t be fooled! When it comes to density, more is less.

Central Business District (Highlighted in Red)

To those opposed to the density increase, how does another hotel sound? Typically, a hotel generates the largest increase in density. For example, instead of a maximum of 99 residential units on the Standard Marine property located at the corner of North 2nd and Alachua Streets (and the largest parcel available for development in the CBD)  how about 150 hotels rooms? If density is not increased, odds are we will get just that, along with more tourist, and more traffic coming and going.

The movement toward increased density is community driven. Many residents want to live downtown.  Community focus groups for years have envisioned second-floor apartments above commercial spaces in the historic downtown.  As large parcels of commercial property have become available, citizens have longed for more diverse housing options in the CBD.  A recent Fernandina Main Street survey confirms this.

So, what is holding us back? Our current density. A choice is before us: Do we want housing in a pedestrian-friendly community, convenient to work and play? Or, do we want our historic downtown to attract even more tourists?

Let’s address a few myths and concerns reported in various news sources and social media:

One scare tactic used by opponents of the density change warns that the increase will result in a “300% increase in density.” No doubt the 300% figure is an attention grabber, but the figure is very, very misleading. To reach that 300% level, every building in the CBD including the Post Office and Nassau County Courthouse would have to be torn down and converted to residential living. For a city like ours with historic district guidelines which protect our historic structures, the odds of that happening are slim to none. Furthermore, in reality, not every building in the CBD would be turned into residential housing.

Another misconception is that the density increase will tie up too many parking places. Although parking is not required  in the CBD for residential housing, data shows the parking impact from retail is greater than that of residential. (An earlier statement on parking was made in error.*) The impact of the density increase  will be minimal. Not every building owner on Centre Street will pay for a costly conversion to residential living. Many will continue to rent to businesses or use the upstairs area as office or storage space. Kelly Gibson, senior planner, suggested building owners can consider the possibility of leasing parking spaces.  Private parking lots in the CBD are currently underutilized. Consider also that some people will choose to live downtown because they don’t want to drive.

Density opponents want us to believe that the city’s infrastructure can’t support the increase. Yet, the city’s detailed report to State of Florida officials confirms that the city’s plant capacities for water and sewer can handle the increase, as can our roadways. (Click here for report.)

Opponents also want us to  worry needlessly that a row of condos on the west side of North Front Street will be constructed and block our view. There are not enough uplands on the west side available for such development.

It saddens me when I hear from residents who say the historic downtown is all about tourists, that it doesn’t seem to belong to them anymore. Centre Street has been the heart and soul of our community for generations, and it is incumbent on us to strike a healthy balance between a downtown for our tourists and a downtown for our citizenry.

How do we do that? Increase density so our CBD can offer a variety of more affordable residential living options: apartments, townhouses, and condos. With residential development, diverse businesses will follow. The number of t-shirt shops catering to tourists will decrease, and the number of businesses catering to residents will increase.

When the density increase was first proposed, it was endorsed by all five commissioners. They have studied the issue and understand  the positive long term benefits that come with an increase, and they know that when it comes to density, more really is less and so much better.

Note: To review more documents related to the proposed density increase, click here.

*This following statement was made in error.  We apologize for the misunderstanding. “However, except on buildings fronting Centre Street, all residential developments must provide parking on site.”

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14 Responses to When it comes to density, more is less

  1. Dave Lott says:

    Good points Susan. While I believe the increase in density is overall a good thing, one question that I have that I have never seen addressed is how was the density of 34 units determined. Seems like an strange number when all the previous discussions over the years have always used multiples of 8. Many believe that the 34 number is being pushed by a particular developer in order to achieve the number of actual buildable units they need for their particular property and not really based on sound planning decisions for the entire CBD. It is this lack of transparency that creates so much confusion and suspicion as to what the change will really mean.

  2. chip ross says:

    “Increase density so our CBD can offer a variety of more affordable residential living options: apartments, townhouses, and condos.” It is true that increased density will likely cause a proliferation of a variety of apartments, townhouses and condos. The question is affordable to whom? The house next door to me in the historic district rents for an excess of $3,000 per month. It is usually rented, and therefore affordable to some.
    “The number of t-shirt shops catering to tourists will decrease, and the number of businesses catering to residents will increase.” If we add an additional thousand people to the central business district, what diverse business will follow? None have been articulated. This notion is long on hope and short on reality. The City Commission should table this motion and refer the matter to the Planning Commission to conduct an intensive and transparent evaluation, similar to the 8th Street evaluation.

    • Dave Lott says:

      Chip, with that increase I would suspect that there would be critical mass for opening a small bodega type food / convenience store. There certainly would be a major increase in automobiles as although downtown living would certainly encourage walking, the lack of sufficient public transit on-island as well as off island would necessitate the need for a car as man cannot live on Uber alone.

      • Nancy Dickson says:

        buyGo, soon to move into the old
        Fred’s location should supply this. Great community focused store with friendly owners

  3. Michael Bell says:

    Thank you, Susan, for consistently and factually addressing the value of long-range planning and smarter growth in the Historic District. Healthy and vibrant historic districts evolve and I hope the citizens recognize the importance of this issue and aren’t drowned out by the usual voices from the torch and pitchfork crowd that always seems to be against any change…

  4. Faith Ross says:

    I like the density increase for the following reasons. We will have fewer businesses downtown. A restaurant owner on Centre St. (who owns a large chunk of a city block) has already had 2 developers offer to purchase his property, tear down the buildings (a lot of them are not actually historic), and put 3-story residential development in it with NO commercial. (C-3 zoning has NO commercial requirement.) Downtown will be a lot quieter. Already the lumber yard has gone entirely residential. With more part-time residents downtown (due to the beach), we can have real quiet! Folks aren’t actually going to live downtown, it will be their second home. On my street alone only 30% of the homes are full-time residents. The County Tax Assessor puts it at only 56% “homesteaded” for the Island. And restaurant employees aren’t going to be able to purchase “affordable” housing such as was promised by Shell Cove which is $300,000. There really won’t be any parking, so I guess the residents won’t have to deal with the tourists anymore. (I kind of like the tourists.) And there will be many more property owners to complain about the noise, the numerous, continuous, and unremitting events, and their high taxes that pay for tourist amenities. Residents are the last people on the City’s priority list, this may put them at the top. Developers come and go, make their money, and leave us with their aftermath. They don’t vote. This could become a VERY interesting purely residential town when more money can be made from residential growth than business growth. As far as shopping, I would much rather go to Publix & WinnDixie (which is close by) and ride my bike to the beach to get my milk at Flash Foods. Truly, let’s call this what it really is, an increase in density is just going to make a few people a pile of money. It is certainly NOT going to do anything to increase retail space.

    • Dave Lott says:

      Faith, a lot of great points with many made tongue in cheek. I don’t think your 56% homesteaded figure for the Island is “fair” as when I looked at this a number of years ago, the City and the unincorporated part of the Island were at opposite ends of the full-time residency spectrum. City was close to 90% and unincorporated part was down in the low 40% area if my memory serves me right. I am sure the Planning Dept could provide a more current and accurate figure for the City.

  5. Faith Ross says:

    Some people have talked about the density increase as necessary to keep businesses going downtown during a recession. From experience, I can tell you what happened to the tourist/second-home towns on the Chesapeake Bay during the last economic downturn. The “second-home” folks didn’t show up, and the residents didn’t spend any money going out to dinner. Unfortunately, about half of the “second-home” property owners returned their ownership keys over to the banks or mortgage holders. Due to the unprecedented number of foreclosures, the real estate economy is still depressed in the area and has only recently started to make a comeback. So, the City needs a Plan B for tax revenue when a massive number of properties go belly up downtown and property values fall. What saved the businesses during the downturn was the “day tripper”. No one was getting on a plane to vacation, but they could all get in a car and drive to the bay or the beach for the day. Nothing saved the hotels, unless they could find conferences.

  6. Faith Ross says:

    Yep! So many people are going to be so happy to come look at all the condos and townhouses in our downtown Fernandina Beach. What a lovely landscape!

  7. david merrill says:

    I think that Ms. Steger is correct in that community focus groups for years have envisioned second-floor apartments above commercial spaces in the historic downtown. Does anyone have a problem with that proposal? Probably no. The problem is when that vision gets expanded to both sides of Ash St crossing 8th all the way to Central Park on 11th St and up into the northern neighborhood as well. Make no mistake, everyone wants Fernandina Beach to succeed but not to the detriment of the historic nature of our downtown. That’s when double speak starts to get confusing. More is less???? It will be a longtime before Ms. Steger sees high rises along the banks of Egan’s Creek so her property is most likely protected. Too bad that she’s not doing much to protect hometown values for other residents. Is it a fallacious dream to think that our planning department and city fathers will ever start to think about the effects of the ‘new town’ of 40,000 inhabitants that Rayionier’s Terra Pointe is building between the island and highway 17 which will impact every aspect of life on the island, including downtown? The infrastructure on the island is limited. The infrastructure of downtown is limited, yet there is a huge push for expansion expansion expansion. This is not sustainable if you consider quality of life. A 2015 traffic study said that from Sadler Rd to the Centre Street traffic light there were 20,500 vehicles per weekday and 1,800 of them were trucks. Traffic has only increased since then. Isn’t what we should be doing is protecting downtown residents and the historic nature of our town by planning for an onslaught from what is being built in Yulee? Sure, make livable condo/apartment spaces upstairs along Centre St, no problem; but an increase from 8 units per acre to 34 units per acre in the whole area that is considered the Central Business District is so substantial that there WILL undoubtably be an increase in traffic, parking and other related issues downtown. What’s convenient about that? And anyone who thinks this is about affordability so that all the millennials who are wait staff and bartenders will be able to have a living space downtown and walk to work-laughable. But there other good questions to ask, such as why was there no citizen involvement for this plan? The 8th Street corridor took well over a year to create that plan for increasing the density, yet there has not been a similar process for this proposal which intends will impact the downtown neighborhoods drastically. Seemingly, this city is pushing big guns. The 8th Street plan initially started out as a simple plan of streetscaping but then magically morphed into a large and expanded vision which changed our whole city zoning plan increasing the density along that corridor and onto 9th St from 8 units per acre to 18/A. Maybe residents downtown wouldn’t mind a slight density increase, but going from 8 to 34 is not that. We have a pedestrian-friendly community now but increasing density downtown will not make it more so. And anyone walking along 8th St knows that during the day because of traffic it is not a nice place to have to walk. Do we have to make downtown like that too? And just so people know, Buy-Go (now 626 S. 8th) and is expanding and becoming a downtown grocery. It will be moving to the old Fred’s building by summer. Undoubtably there is some developer as Mr Lott suggests who can’t make their envisioned profit without the number of 34 units/A. The question is should the residents of Fernandina Beach and especially those live downtown have to suffer just because of that.

  8. Lynne Anderson says:

    I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone mention yet the relationship between increasing residential density in the Central Business District and the noise ordinance. Clearly there is a relationship, and it’s one that’s going to become more controversial, not less, if/when the number of people living intermingled with bars and restaurants increases.

  9. Robert Weintraub says:

    Susan, you haven’t read the fine print. Parking will be a negative issue. In this ordinance are provisions that developers can pay the city cash in lieu of meeting the parking requirement and that city parking lots will be available to the new residents. The parking issue must be resolved before increased density should be considered.

  10. Ron Sapp says:

    We’re writing and talking about increases as though it’s all done in a vacuum. All I hear or read are theories and hypotheticals. Fact: downtown infrastructure (streets, open space and parking) are inadequate for the current peak population, one can only wince and cringe if the numbers generated by the most optimistic theorists ever materialize. Just a small dose of reality going forward, please.

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