EDITORIAL: Corazon Theater & a Lesson in Zoning

A meeting was hosted Thursday evening at the old Corazon Theater at 36 Granada by Mr. Jay McGarvey to make a presentation for opening a neighborhood coffee house, bakery and restaurant that locals could walk to and socialize. It was well attended, but many people got caught up with what the building would end up looking like, a description of the food, and the success of their coffee houses and restaurants in Jacksonville.

Lots of drawings were presented and there were many interesting comments on the design of the building. His architects seemed willing to take some of the suggestions into account and revise the design to fit in more with the area. Many people were impressed with the likability of the developer, chef, and architect.

However the REZONING request coming before the PZB this coming Tuesday, May 4 at 2 pm has NOTHING to do with the design of the building, the menus, or the people behind the project.

The applicant is asking for a Zoning change from CL-1 (Commercial Light 1) to a more intense CL-2 (Commercial Light 2).

It might sound simple, but it isn’t. Changing the Zoning Map is a BIG DEAL and intensifying an area should not be taken lightly. Zoning is what keeps a city stable, and as residents we need to insist that the PZB and City Commission maintain that stability.

While variances & exceptions are not unusual, “spot zoning” and CHANGING our Zoning Districts has RARELY occurred since the Zoning Code was established in St Augustine in 1976.

Changing zoning affects all of us, because is sets up precedents.

Everyone who buys property, be it commercial or residential, should understand zoning and what uses are allowed on the property before it is bought. This is especially true for the homeowner, where real estate can be a major long term investment.  It is not fair to a homeowner or businessman to buy a piece of property with the understanding of what uses will be allowed on the surrounding property, only to have a neighbor change the zoning next door.

It is important that our citizens and PZB continue to send a clear message that while everyone has the right to request a zoning change, it is unlikely to happen in historic St.Augustine.  A buyer needs to be aware of the zoning and its uses before property is bought.

This is true of this application. Mr. McGarvey said that the only way he could make his business model work is to be able to have 250 people for Sunday Brunch and to sell $15 cocktails. He was asked why he bought in a CL-1 zone, if he couldn’t make his business work under that zoning. He replied that he didn’t want to make it sound like a threat, but he could put something worse there. For someone whose pitch was to be “neighborhood friendly,” that sounded like a warning not to oppose him.  He obviously wasn’t concerned that changing the zoning could have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

The rest of the businesses along Granada all the way up to King Street are zoned CL-1. Allowing this applicant to have CL-2 would not be fair to those who have operated their businesses under the restrictions of CL-1 for all this time.  Rezoning this property would set up a domino effect along Granada as the other businesses come forth and ask to be rezoned CL-2 as well.

Zoning stays with the property.  Once this property is rezoned to CL-2, it intensifies it for all future owners, and legally it would be nearly impossible to return it to CL-1.

Interestingly, 36 Granada came before PZB in May 2016 asking for the same zoning change to CL-2 and it was unanimously denied because “of concern for the intensification of use on the property for the future.”   The threat of intensification of the area has only gotten worse.

Lincolnville in particular is being squeezed as a residential neighborhood, not only because of the growth of short term rentals, but the proliferation of restaurants that have been allowed in their neighborhood and the traffic problems they bring.  Old City South will be the next neighborhood to have these problems, if Lincolnville is residentially destroyed.

The stated reason on the application is that more than 100 seats are needed for each of his restaurants: “Southern Grounds” and “Alder & Oak.”  CL-1 gives him a total of 200 seats, which is more than enough for a neighborhood establishment that people are going to walk to.  Many of St. Augustine’s successful restaurants have less seating.  When Mr. McGarvey stated that he was expecting 250 people for Sunday Brunch, this set off alarms that this will not be a low impact restaurant.

His second reason is a desire for a full alcohol license.  While not generally allowed in CL-1, the PZB may grant him an Exception to sell beer and wine and this could be a way to ensure this applicant’s business model is a success. Many high caliber restaurants are successful with the sale of expensive wine to accompany a meal.  Good food is what attracts people to a restaurant.

If we let an increase in seating and alcohol sales to become a reason to rezone property, then a dangerous precedent will be set and businesses will be lining up before the PZB and City Commission to ask the same.

Seating & alcohol sales are NOT valid reasons for changing our Zoning Districts.

The protection of our present zoning is essential to preserving the unique, historic residential character of downtown St Augustine. These historic neighborhoods are what makes us more than a tourist destination.  This is why livability is such an important part of our Vision Statement.

Based on the history of this property and surrounding CL-1, residential and historic preservation zoning, there are NO grounds to SPOT ZONE this one piece of property.

Southern Grounds and Alder & Oak could still thrive and be a success under CL-1.  We encourage them to respect the need for this area to remain at a lower intensity.  By doing so, they would be welcomed as good neighbors and an important part of the community.

Melinda Rakoncay