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.
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.”