Friday, July 17, 2015
Ineptly-run HARB Meeting Pressured to Rule for Developer DAVID BARTON CORNEAL and OLD ISLAND HOTELS, INC.
HARB grants opinion of appropriateness to Cordova Inn; City Commission vote next
Posted: July 16, 2015 - 11:34pm
By STUART KORFHAGE
For the Cordova Inn’s prospect of approval, it’s nearing time for the ultimate decision.
With Thursday’s decision by St. Augustine’s Historic Architectural Review Board to grant an opinion of appropriateness, the next and most important step in the project’s attempt at final approval rests with the City Commission.
Thursday’s 3-0 vote means the proposal to turn what used to be the Dow Museum of Historic Houses of St. Augustine into a boutique hotel has passed through two preliminary boards with favorable decisions.
But only the City Commission can ultimately allow the Planned Unit Development proposed by owner David Corneal to go forward.
Agendas for upcoming meetings have not yet been finalized, so it has yet to be determined when the commission will hear the issue.
Just getting to this point has been arduous. Winning the preliminary recommendations of HARB and the Planning and Zoning Board has come amid opposition, compromise and alterations.
And final approval is anything but guaranteed.
As the board members announced before the meeting even started, their only job was to offer an opinion.
“It’s not binding, but it will send a message [to the commission],” HARB member Randal Roark said. “We’re not here to decide whether to accept [the PUD request].”
Thursday’s meeting was mostly for guidance of the site plan, assuming it will be configured as the Cordova Inn.
If it’s not ultimately approved as a hotel, the plan for the property is to turn the old houses into apartments.
HARB members were certainly critical of some of the elements of the project design. The biggest objection was in regard to the move of a shallow swimming pool to the center of the property near the amphitheater.
All three board members present — Paul Weaver recused himself and one seat is still vacant — indicated their displeasure with the location of the pool.
They also asked for more specific details about aspects of the landscaping and utilities.
Mark Knight, one of Corneal’s representatives, said the planning hasn’t reached that detail yet. Until the use of the property as a hotel is granted, the applicant is not finalizing plans, Knight said.
He acknowledged that ownership understands HARB must issue a final certificate of appropriateness — as opposed to just an opinion — even after the PUD is granted, if it is.
“That’s one of the things we’re here for, to get guidance from you,” Knight said.
Late in the meeting, Roark said that he had not been leaning toward voting in favor of the project until being convinced that it would be maintaining the history of the property at Bridge, Cordova and St. George streets. And he warned Knight that the board’s advice must be heeded.
“I’m convinced we have switched it back to a positive direction,” Roark said. “But if I vote for approval today and this site plan comes back, I’ll vote to deny the certificate (of appropriateness).”
Before coming to a decision, the board heard a considerable public comment. Most who spoke addressed the issue of the eventual decision on the PUD, even though the focus Thursday was just on the site plan.
There was a large contingent of Cordova Inn supporters who stressed Corneal’s restoration work. Among the supporters were the Sisters of St. Joseph, who have a retirement home next door to the former Dow property.
There were also plenty of residents in attendance opposed for various reasons, including those with concerns shared by the HARB members.
Several of those against the project, including Lee Geanuleas, said they’re concerned about the removal of the shed that used to be part of the red “carpenters’s house.” That structure was demolished after getting a permit from HARB.
However, Geanuleas pointed out Cordova Inn representatives had said during the application for demolition hearing that the shed would be retained.
“The shed is gone and no one told you about it,” Geanuleas said.
Knight confirmed with the city that the shed was part of the carpenter’s house and could be demolished legally.
However, St. George Street resident Fred Novak told the board that residents aren’t getting straight answers from the applicant.
“What’s happening here?” he said. “I don’t quite understand. The applicant changes things.”
Novak praised the quality of work on the property but said that isn’t enough to get to change the use.
“Just because we turn this into single-family (units) or apartments doesn’t mean we lose our heritage,” he said.
Those who oppose the PUD and those who favor it almost universally agreed that the restoration work was good, and some suggested that the property will be well-preserved either way.
However, Cordova Inn workers told the HARB members that the hotel will generate a lot more income than long-term rentals, so the investment ultimately put into the property will reflect that.
Architect Donald Crichlow said many of the improvements on the current site plan — like a new masonry wall on the north side of the property and a new porch for the Worcester House — will not be done if the PUD is not approved by the commission.
“You can’t do it. There’s not enough return on investment with the apartment scenario that there is with the inn scenario,” he said. “So many of the things that we are proposing for the inn will not be there.
“The investment will be greatly reduced in the property, not only on the landscape features but also with the interior features.”