St. Michael’s plans for new office receive cool reception from HDC, public

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 25, 2018 1:18 p.m.

Several North Side Historic District homeowners joined with Fernandina Beach Historic District Council (HDC) members in opposition to plans for a new St. Michael’s Church office building on the corner of Broome and North 5thStreets.  While there was unanimity in support for the church’s request to demolish the existing structure, a ranch style residential building dating to 1973 and built before the creation of the local Historic District, there was virtually no support for the proposed replacement. Residents of Broome Street, North 6thStreet and Calhoun expressed concern over the size of the new structure, its hybrid design and its incompatibility with the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Design proposed for new church office building at 505 Broome Street

Architect Jose Miranda represented St. Michael’s Church in presenting the six cases required to accomplish the church’s plans for its property along North 5thStreet and the corner of Broome Street.  Each case addressed a condition that would need to be addressed in connection with the replacement of the existing office building:

  • 2018-13:Request to demolish a two-story, non contributing primary structure built in 1997 and located at 224 N. 5thStreet;
  • 2018-19:Request for conceptual approval to relocate and rehabilitate a contributing structure (the Liberty Billings House) at 222 North 5thStreet;
  • 2018-12:Request for a variance to reduce front and side yard setbacks for the relocated structure in order to preserve the current relationship of the building to the street;
  • 2018-18:Request to demolish the existing church office, built in 1973, at 505 Broome Street;
  • 2018-20:Request for conceptual approval to construct an approximately 6,300 square foot, single story primary structure to replace the church office at 505 Broome Street;
  • 2018-17:Request for a variance to reduce the front yard setback for the new church office by ten feet, to bring its Broome Street façade in alignment with other neighboring properties.

The HDC approved the first four items after public input and discussion.  However, they postponed the final two cases until their June 21 meeting, asking the architect to come back with new plans that addressed their concerns.

The HDC approved plans to demolish the building on the left, built in 1997, and to relocate the historic Liberty Billings House (right) 30 feet to the north of its current location.

While rumors of church building plans had circulated throughout the surrounding neighborhood for several months, church representatives chose not to address concerns directly.  In a letter dated May 6, 2018 and dropped off at the doors of church neighbors, Pastor Fr. Jose Kallukalam acknowledged church awareness of neighbors’ desire for information.  However, he suggested that those seeking information attend the HDC meeting.  “We believe this is also the proper forum for interested citizens to raise questions about our plans,” he wrote, adding, “If you have tried to reach members of our parish staff, please understand that we will be better able to respond to your concerns in the public meeting on May 24.  Thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.”

The St. Michael’s campus is an enclave in an area of the city zoned Medium Density Residential (R-2). The church itself, located at North 4thand Broome Streets, dates to 1873.  It was recently expanded.  St. Michael’s Academy, which dates to the 1880’s, is located at North 4thand Calhoun Streets, the north side of the block which is entirely owned by the church.  The Parish Hall, on the southwest corner of North 4thand Calhoun Streets, had a long history with the church and has been recently rebuilt.

This drawing shows the existing structures and their relationship to the street and each other along North 5th Street.
This drawing shows the proposed increase in size of the church office building, shift of valet parking lot and Liberty Billings house. Note that it shows preserving two large trees on the property.

In recent years, the church has purchased the North 5thStreet properties and expanded school activities along Calhoun Street between North 5thand 6thStreets.  While at one time properties on North 6thStreet between Broome and Calhoun were not developed, today many new houses have been built there which back up to church property.

Existing church office building at 505 Broome Street

Other than the architect, no representative of the church spoke at the HDC meeting to explain the need for a 6,300 square foot office building, which would be more than twice the size of the existing structure (2,735 square feet).  Miranda explained that this project would conclude St. Michael’s plans for their campus.  No master plan was presented to show how landscaping or pedestrian access would unify the block of North 5thStreet now entirely owned by St. Michael’s.

North side residents have grumbled over the years about the impact of the growing church population and the associated church schools on residential parking and traffic.  To date the city has not seen fit to address these concerns, despite public safety fears raised by residents and churchgoers alike.  The new plans do not require the church to provide additional off street parking. Those requirements are triggered by the capacity of the church, not the auxiliary buildings.  Requirements for church parking were met when the church underwent a recent expansion.

Architect Miranda indicated that several options for the new office building were considered before church officials decided on the one presented for HDC approval.  HDC members offered many suggestions and input for improvement of the design, including reducing the building’s footprint by moving to a 2-story, as opposed to the single-story, structure.  Miranda explained that the design was a hybrid intended to incorporate design elements from the church and surrounding properties. It appeared to be the consensus of the HDC that the new building’s design needed to be in harmony with adjacent and adjoining residential structures.  Members questioned the use of stucco for the exterior, use of shutters, use of two different roofing materials.  But the matter of greatest concern was the mass of the new building, which made it seem out of place in the surrounding residential community. HDC members offered suggestions to break up the new structure into multiple buildings or otherwise alter the façade to mask the buildings size.

Miranda indicated that the project was not “shovel ready,” and that funds will need to be raised for the plans to be realized.

Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Dene Stovall
Dene Stovall (@guest_51441)
6 years ago

I am not clear as to the reason for relocating the Lotspeich House (Billings) north of its present location. What renovation is being recommended?

Dene Stovall
Dene Stovall (@guest_51506)
6 years ago

I would like to know how they plan to avoid destroying the oldest magnolia tree on Amelia Island?