Gainesville refuses zoning change near Depot Park

For now, a piece of property adjacent Depot Park will remain zoned for industrial uses, but discussion of potential changes to the property did prompt a revision to one of the city’s land development codes.

A family trust that owns the property at 1015 S. Main St. requested a series of changes that would have allowed the property to change zoning from general industrial to downtown.

Currently, the property is leased to Graybar Electric Supply, and Graybar has several years left on its lease, Jim Stringfellow, a trustee for the family trust, told the Gainesville City Commission last week. At present, the trust does not have a developer or immediate plans to sell the property because of the lease.

However, Stringfellow said he was seeking to change the land use category and the zoning designation as part of a long-term strategic plan for the property.

City of Gainesville Commissioner Reina Saco (At large, Seat A)

“In the long run, we know that having industrial use on that park is not the best use down the road,” he said at a special meeting about the property changes on Feb. 22. “The best thing for the owners and the best thing, in the long run, for the park is to change the legal uses allowed on this property to be different from the industrial current zoning.”

The land use and zoning change sought by the trust would have opened the property for mixed use development, which could include both retail and residential units. The general industrial zoning doesn’t allow for residential uses.

“In the long run, that property, that area, should be and it can be a living, working, shopping, dining area to bring more people downtown,” Stringfellow said.

While the commissioners generally supported moving toward residential uses for the South Main property, the majority of them balked at switching to the downtown zoning designation because it allows for buildings up to 12 stories high.

A building with 12 floors also met with resistance from dozens of area residents and Gainesville activists who spoke during the almost 5-hour meeting.

Commissioner Reina Saco said she didn’t support switching the property to downtown zoning because the family trust didn’t have plans for the property yet.

“I see that as writing a blank check,” Saco said. “By right, [the owners] just can go do all of this, when we haven’t been told what benefit the community would get or what the purpose of that structure would be.”

In the end, the commission voted 5-2 to deny the application to change the land use category for the property from industrial to urban core, which was a necessary change before considering the more specific zoning change from general industrial to downtown. The specific zoning change was removed from the agenda after the underlying land use change was denied.

Depot Park map

Sean McDermott, an assistant city attorney, said the family trust would have to wait 12 months before submitting another application on the property, though the commission could waive the 12-month waiting period and consider a new application after 30 days.

But representatives of the trust said at the meeting they wouldn’t resubmit their application if it was denied.

However, specific discussions about the South Main property did prompt a more general change to the city’s land development code.

The commission voted 4-3 to alter the code requirements for transect zoning, dropping a requirement that parcels be a minimum of 10 acres in order to qualify for transect zones. The vote also added language that further defined which properties would qualify to be in a transect zone.

Dropping the 10-acre minimum would have been necessary for the South Main property to qualify for the land use and zoning modifications it requested. The commission tackled—and narrowly passed—the transect zone alterations at the beginning of the meeting.

Andrew Persons, the city’s director of sustainable development, said the city adopted transect zones in 2017.

As part of transect zones, the city sets standards for buildings, including requirements for wider sidewalks, more ground floor windows, and more glazing, Persons said. Transect zones also allow for a higher density of residents and taller building heights.

Transect zoning is different from conventional zoning, which the city also has, in that conventional zoning categories set the potential uses for properties but don’t have the specific building requirements of transect zones, Persons said.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he supported dropping the 10-acre requirement because he thought Gainesville would benefit from more transect zones because of their emphasis on sidewalks and walkability.

“The other zones we have are car centric,” Hayes-Santos said. “We don’t really have any other mixed-use zoning that allows a mixed use [with] pedestrians being put first.”

Persons said that one potential problem of keeping the lot size at 10 acres was that developers might buy more property than they need for a project to meet that minimum size requirement. Although several properties in the city otherwise qualify for transect zoning, few meet the 10-acre minimum.

Saco said her vote to remove the 10-acre minimum from the land use code was separate from her consideration of the specific South Main property application.

Cynthia Chestnut mug

“I’m looking at where it could actually help throughout the city,” Saco said. “…I see it as a wonderful opportunity to remove something arbitrary and that is at this point not helping anyone.”

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who voted against changing the transect zone requirements, said she thought it would lead to spot zoning, which is when a small piece of land is zoned completely differently from that of the surrounding area for the benefit of the property owner.

“I think this opens the door to spot zoning all over the city of Gainesville,” Chestnut said. “…The major change here takes away everything and opens Gainesville up to lose its character.”

Chestnut also advocated more community discussion before changing zone requirements, a sentiment echoed by Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who also opposed the transect zoning changes until the city had gathered more public comments and finalized their comprehensive plan.

“We don’t have a plan,” Duncan-Walker said. “… I believe we are at a critical moment in the life of this city and we have an opportunity to make life-altering decisions for generations to come with the policies we include in our comprehensive plan. And we don’t have a plan. It’s not done.”

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