Architects should brace for criticism and complaints when residents pack a room to hear the design scheme for a new development. And it was pretty much standing room only at the Historical District Council Thursday for R4 Development’s presentation for a 10-unit townhouse project at Ash and S. 9th streets, a site occupied by a BuyGo store, an asphalt parking lot, and a majestic oak tree.
The proposal called for the partial demolition (on the east side) of the partially occupied building, which dates to 1954, and the construction of two new buildings, each with five two-story, single-family townhouses topped by a private rooftop deck, according to architect Joel Reitzer, who is working with owner Mike McCloskey of CMR Island Properties LLC.
In his presentation, Mr. Reitzer said the buildings would be located around the property’s eastern and southern perimeter, with five units fronting S. 9th St. and five units fronting Ash St. The rear of properties would face the tree, some green space, and fencing, he said.
The three-bedroom, two and a half bath units would each have a single-car garage and range in size from 1,717 sq. ft. to 2,035 sq. Elevators are planned for several townhouses, he said.
The architect and owner said there will be an effort to save the oak tree, which has an 80-inch diameter at breast height. The tree inspired the project the name: The Grand Oak Townhouses.
While there was significant concern for the tree’s safety, the design offended residents.
The architect proposed mid-century styling, similar to the block building occupied by BuyGo. While that scheme may have been popular in the country’s post war suburbs, residents maintained the design has no place in a neighborhood with Victorian style houses and structures dating back to 1900.
Maria Dray said she moved to Fernandina last year from Naples for the “character and charm.”
Chris Page, who owns and operates the Williams House Bed & Breakfast with his wife Maria Page, said the design is not “harmonious or historic” and they’re opposed “100 percent.”
Rachel McCoy, who lives nearby on S. 10th St., said plans to build the townhouses up to the sidewalk will create “block housing” that will “overshadow the street” — and then, “it will be like – BANG! – up in your face.”
Resident Eric Bartelt, who has worked on waterfront design plans, said he was concerned about the lack of window’s on the first floor, which would present “a very unfriendly face to the street.”
Surveyor Mike Manzie of Manzie and Drake Land Surveying on S. 9th St., said the design was “an eyesore” and called for a traffic study.
Pastor Darien Bolden of the First Missionary Baptist Church on S. 9th St., across from the proposed development site, said the townhouses at 35 ft. would hide the church from view and said he didn’t like the design. “There’s nothing historic about this project…honestly, I don’t see the benefit for this design.”
Deacon Kevin Brown said Historic District restrictions prevent the church from installing an awning and new signage, but “they’re putting a fence around the tree.”
Church member Robert Blue was concerned about traffic congestion and parking, especially during church and funeral services. “I’m against the project.”
The city doesn’t have parking requirements in the Central Business District. And Historic District Council Chair Michael Harrison said the board doesn’t have oversight on parking.
Tracey Escalante, who operates the Hoyt House Bed & Breakfast, which adjoins the development property at 22 S. 8th St., said guests don’t want “a congested area full of people.” And how — she wanted to know — will horse-drawn carriages get down S. 9th St. if it is filled with parked cars? Where will the owls nest if the oak tree is lost to construction? And who is going to stop the noisy parties on the rooftop decks after “snowbirds” buy a townhouse and rent it out on Airbnb?
Mr. Harrison said the board addresses design, not behavior — “as much as we’d like to.”
Peggy Lehosit suggested having people on site for the planned tree pruning to ensure the work was done with proper care.
Other residents were concerned about “visual mass” and the request for a variance on minimum lot width (proposed for 23 ft.; 25 ft. is required) and tree plantings. According to the architect, there’s not enough room to install two trees per unit, including a shade tree, unless the city allows the developer to use the public right-of-way. The plan called for the giant oak tree to serve as the shade tree for the entire development, he said.
City Commissioner Phil Chapman, who spoke as a private citizen, said, “Don’t allow this.” He questioned whether the giant oak tree could survive the construction project. He has seen enough trees “disappear” in development and “the city gets an ‘Oops,’ sorry.”
City Commissioner Chip Ross, who spoke as a private citizen, said the project may be moot if the board decides not to allow any part of the existing building to be demolished. He said city planners “sold” a density increase for the Central Business District last year with commercial development on first floors and residential units on second and third floors. He also said the block design reminded him of “Soviet style” housing he once saw in Prague.
Historic Preservation Planner Salvatore Cumella scribbled notes throughout the meeting. Senior Planner Kelly Gibson took official minutes. The planners had recommended approval for the concept design.
HDC Board members had concerns about the plan and agreed to continue the meeting, which Chair Harrison called “a courtesy to the applicant for feedback and guidance.” The developer and architect are expected to return to the board with significant revisions.
Mr. Harrison said he was inclined to deny the concept plan and it’s 1950s styling, calling it “an aberration we don’t need to perpetuate.”