A few nights ago I decided to add some spice to the evening and started reading the Downtown Zoning Code on the JEDC page of the City website. (Oh, the exciting life of a Downtown blogger!) Here’s what I found interesting.
From the Downtown Zoning Overlay:
(i) Parking garages shall incorporate active uses on the ground floor in order to engage pedestrians and surface parking lots shall be discouraged unless landscaping and architectural treatments are incorporated to soften their appearance;
(How delightful it would be if this were actually enforced!)
There’s a story in today’s Daily Record that looks like folks at JEDC reviewed the same code and had similar thoughts. Groovy. Score one for making Downtown a little less blighted.
I wonder, though, what the legislation says. Rather than restating the need to make parking facilities look nice (and thus making Downtown look less desolate), will it have a method of enforcement?
Hmmm, this post goes against my policy of not getting involved in planning/transportation/politics. But that’s the cool side of being my own publisher: breaking the rules.
The proposal would require a business permit to operate a parking lot, to combat the many “lots” that are more or less foundations of demolished buildings on which drivers can park for as little as $1 per day.
According to Ron Barton, executive director of the JEDC, 47 percent of Downtown is used for parking; vacant land (16 percent), surface parking lots (25 percent) and parking garages (6 percent). (Rights of Way and the Sports District — which he called “a different beast” — are excluded from these numbers.) Other cities have as much as 30 to 40 percent of their Downtown areas covered by parking, but the problem in Jacksonville, Barton said, is allowing land owners to sit on their properties for 20 years without improvement. By not addressing the problem, he said, Jacksonville encourages land owners to knock down buildings, because an unimproved property generates a smaller tax bill than a property with a structure.
Barton said the foundation-lots, particularly those near the new courthouse, “are not business operations.” One commissioner asked about liability, and Barton speculated the owners of derelict lots do not have insurance coverage.
Barton’s proposal is to amend the Downtown Overlay to include a three-year licensing process (year one, get permit; years two and three, bring into compliance). The purpose is not to generate revenue, nor be outright punitive, but act as a management tool. Barton said businesses cannot operate in other parts of the city without a license, and that is what he seeks to do with this legislation.
For those foundation-lots, property owners would be required to bring the lots up to the proposed new code: remove the slabs, grade the site, plant grass, maintain the property.
Cost was one major point for commissioners. In this economy, for many individuals and companies, the bottom line is all that matters. If cost is the deciding factor, people will choose $1-a-day parking on a grassy, uneven building foundation over $10-a-day covered, smooth parking, commissioners said. Barton argued that enabling the $1-a-day parking by the new courthouse ensures a continued subsidy (at great cost) of the city-owned parking structure.
Enforcement was the other major point. Barton’s argument was that owners will respond to enforcement officers with badges more than they will respond to JEDC staff. One commissioner, a Springfield resident, said code enforcement often will not respond to repeated requests for health and safety notices in that neighborhood (which has been rebounding for a few years) — how will code enforcement be compelled to regulate matters of business licensing?
Commissioners spoke of offering incentives, rather than another license that would be seen as a tax or fee. Barton said he did not consider it fair to reward negligent property owners with incentives to keep doing what they have (not) been doing for decades.
The legislation was to have been proposed after the New Year.
Someone commented that we have an ugly Downtown. While I will agree that areas of Downtown are blighted and less than charming (our dearly departed LaVilla, for example), I would disagree that Downtown as a whole is lacking. We have lost much, yes, but much remains. Two examples that come to mind immediately are City Hall at St. James and the Florida Theater. Certainly an empty lot will not compare with a restored or new structure, but let’s not lose sight of the greater Downtown neighborhood.