As demolition crews tear down trees and buildings to prepare the property at 4315 NW 23rd Ave. for a new mixed-use development, Suburban Heights neighbors may be reaching a resolution to their years-long struggle with the land use of what used to be St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.
The city has issued a site work permit for Scherer Construction to excavate and pave the retail-zoned land in preparation for a 3,500-square-foot retail building, the first of four proposed buildings on the site. Gainesville’s chief plans examiner Paul Myers said the building, which is currently under development review, will probably be about the right size for two tenants.
Colliers International advertises the land parcel online as about 11,000 square feet under the name “Millhopper Development,” a mixed-use space ideal for offices, medical, financial, or other services, childcare facilities, or veterinary care.
According to Jason Hurst, associate vice president for Colliers, the real estate services and investment management company has been advised not to comment on the development.
Scherer Construction filed the development under the name, “Cox Retail,” in its building application but has not responded to requests for comment. The property owner, Wilson Development Group (WDG), also did not respond to requests for comment.
City Commissioner Ed Book, whose district includes Suburban Heights, said he has received emails about the development and has seen posts on social media discussing it, but his constituents are more curious than concerned.
“It looked like there might have been interest because there was some difference to the property for the first time in a while,” Book said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Neighbors in Suburban Heights, just south of the property, spent years battling previous plans that attempted to change land use and zoning. These same neighbors have no objection to the current development plan, which retains the property’s retail zoning, according to Don Niesen, a Suburban Heights resident and lawyer with a specialty in construction law.
Joyce Dewsbury, another neighbor, said the neighborhood has not been involved in the process of what development will go on the land for some time. Now the neighbors’ main concern is the destruction of trees on the property, which has encroached on a conservation zone.
Brittany McMullen, a sustainable development planner for the city, told Niesen in a May 30 email that the planned tree removal, making space for a driveway, was approved by the county because it met the 10% “maximum impervious area” requirement for a driveway spilling over into a conservation area. The driveway falls into county jurisdiction because it will connect to a portion of NW 43rd St. that is a county road.
When the church was built in 1975, the Diocese set aside 3.9 acres, about half the parcel, as conservation land at the neighborhood’s request. It was meant to act as a buffer for Suburban Heights residents, according to a 2018 letter to Matt Wilson of WDG, from Florida Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard. The letter was provided to Mainstreet by Don Niesen.
According to the letter, the church lost 90% of its members when a priest left in 2003 to form an Anglican church. The congregation never recovered, and eventually the church died. By 2018 the diocese had determined the site was not suitable for a church, deconsecrated it, and was looking into selling it.
By the time the diocese sold the land to WDG in 2022, the city had already turned down multiple attempts to change the zoning to allow developments with features such as drive-thru lanes and six-story apartment complexes, according to several neighbors.
However, because of concern for what would happen to the property after it was sold, and because the church building was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the building came under consideration to be designated as a historic site, according to Dewsbury.
Less than a week before the historic preservation board was set to discuss the site, the diocese obtained a demolition permit and tore the building down.
Since then, the church’s additional buildings have been sitting vacant, attracting homeless people and others.
“I just feel very sad,” Dewsbury said. “It had been a lovely area, just to look at.”
Gainesville Police Department spokeswoman Lisa Scott responded to a referral from Commissioner Book when a Suburban Heights resident complained of hazards such as “broken glass, exposed nails, human waste, fire extinguishers, & trash” on the property. Scott said she has never seen people on the property, but she has seen signs of human activity there.
“I just think that that place was a location of opportunity because it was vacant and abandoned for persons to congregate in,” Scott said.
Scherer Construction has torn down the remaining buildings and is laying concrete. Approval for the four-building project is going through a two-week review cycle, according to Paul Myers, after which construction can begin.