Zoning Change in Limbo

by Jeremy Morrison

Neighborhood residents, businesses and potential developers pleaded their cases before Pensacola City Council Oct. 8, as the council considered rezoning a pocket of the city north of downtown and running roughly parallel to Interstate-110. Some wanted the area to remain a mix of residential and commercial, while others urged council to rezone to a softer residential.

Planning Administrator Sherry Morris described the action as “a follow-up housekeeping measure that has to occur.” She explained that council must approve an ordinance addressing the zoning in order to square it with Pensacola’s future land use map and Comprehensive Plan.

And though council dug deep into the issues surrounding this rezoning, it failed to produce the votes — locking in a 4-4 tie — needed to change the area from Residential Neighborhood Commercial to Residential /Office. But because the rezoning is required, the planning department will be bringing back the proposed ordinance next council meeting. It will look much the same as it did this month. As will the issues surrounding the rezoning.

At the heart of this rezoning debate is a piece of property located at 2511 N. Hayne St. It’s the site of the former J. Lee Pickens primary school, now owned by Manna Food Pantries. Manna had planned a 20,000-square foot building, but the project met resistance from neighborhood residents and ultimately it was decided that the city’s future land use map — which slated the area as residential — didn’t allow for the project anyway.

Now that Manna has taken its project off the table, the non-profit is looking to sell its property. The prospective buyer, the PACES Foundation, a non-profit with properties across the Southeast that bills itself as providing “affordable housing and services for low-income neighbors,” has designs of putting a 76-unit apartment complex on the site.

“We first saw this site a couple of years ago,” Rick Hammons, of the PACES Foundation, told city council.

With the area’s current zoning, PACES’s project would need to be scaled back to about 35 units. If the zoning is changed to Residential/Office, the density allowance shrinks to the point of making such a project moot.

While some council members lauded PACES’s other properties — “It’s fabulous,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said of the nonprofit’s landscaping efforts — other’s nodded to neighborhood residents’ concerns about such a project and desire to see the zoning changed.

“I think the most important thing we can do is maintain the integrity of the neighborhoods,” said Councilman Charles Bare.

Neighborhood residents expressed concerns about the type of residents a large-scale project targeting low-income renters would draw into the area. They described how they wanted to see affordable housing built in the area so that people would buy into the area.

“We want houses, we are tired of this,” said Jeannie Rhoden, imploring council to make the zoning changes that the “East side neighborhood has blessed.”

“I know without a doubt what subsidized housing will do,” said resident Paula Benson, expressing the same concerns as other residents about crime and drugs.

Hammon had explained that the PACES’s Foundation funded their operation by applying for tax credits available for projects that rent to renters who make 60 percent or less of the median area income.

“What I’d say to you, we’re going to invest 14 or 15 million dollars, we’re not going to allow drugs on our property, we’re not going to allow criminals on our property, we’re going to be very careful,” Hammon reiterated later. “We run a tight ship. We have to to keep our investors happy.”

Council members also defended the nonprofit’s aims.

“It’s not a Section 8 project,” said Myers. “It’s not subsidized housing.”

Myers also pointed out that other PACES facilities are LEED certified, or “green” buildings. Hammon said the organization is “as green as the financing we have available will allow us to be.”

Councilman Brian Spencer asked Hammon to describe potential renters — “single mothers, etcetera.” Hammon said the group would target “a cross-section of the population.”

But other council members sympathized with those who sought the more restrictive zoning. Councilwoman Jewell Cannada-Wynn said she too believed that residents with a sense of ownership in their homes would serve the area better.

“Residents who own their property take a different attitude on their neighborhood, they have a different attitude about involvement in their neighborhood,” she said. “They’re not just visiting.”

Councilman Larry B. Johnson said that the area needed rental units. Myers contended that “rental property does not equate to crime.” Spencer charged that the anti-rental attitude was “an insult to the rental community” and predicted that such a stance would mean that “this four acre site will lay barren for years and years.”

Comparisons were also made between PACES’s proposed project and the residential/commercial super project Quint Studer is launching at the former Pensacola News Journal site downtown. Bare characterized such a comparison as “not even anywhere close.”

Prior to voting on the proposed zoning change, Council President Andy Terhaar requested that the Pickens school property be omitted from the switch, effectively leaving it residential-commercial.

“You buy a piece of property with an expectation,” Terhaar said, explaining that he thought Manna — and PACES, if it should purchase — should have been able to work with the current zoning, as opposed to the future zoning. “I think it’s proper for Medium Density Residential.”

Terhaar’s amendment to the proposed ordinance ended up failing, as did the passage of the ordinance itself. With the zoning remaining as is for the time being, council will dive back into the issue in November.

While the ordinance will remain the same — changing the zoning from Residential Neighborhood Commercial to Residential Office — City PIO Vernon Stewart said the planning department will also be providing maps depicting some possible changes that council discussed. Those maps will likely depict Terhaar’s proposed change, as well as a request from Councilman Gerald Wingate to carve out two smaller parcels (2515 N Haynes and 2521 N Haynes) that Morris said could present “spot zoning” issues.