Monday, August 03, 2015

Capt. Lee Geanuleas, U.S.N. (Ret.) on DOW PUD (HCN column)

Guest: The trend of commercial interests consuming residential


Dear Historic City News readers:

What to do with the former Dow Museum of Historic Houses? This relatively straight forward question has generated a fair amount of passion, raised a bumper crop of yard signs and caused many to ask, “Just what the heck is a PUD?”

Regardless of how you feel about it, the “Dow PUD” issue has ensured the summer, while long and hot, is anything but dull.

To recap:

The owner of the Dow, David Corneal, wants to convert the eight remaining historic houses into high-end boutique hotel suites ($350-$600 per night) with a guests-only bar. To do that, he needs the city to create a Planned Unit Development (PUD) because St Augustine’s zoning laws do not allow rentals of fewer than 30 days, for-profit businesses or bars in the Dow’s location, the Historic Preservation 1 (HP-1) residential district.

The land uses allowed in HP-1 by right, which the owner could pursue without so much as a “Mother May I,” are single family homes and multi-family residences (apartments or condominiums). He could also return the houses to their former museum use since HP-1 allows non-profit museums as a use by exception. But, seeking the maximum return on his investment, the owner has been dogged in his quest to change the zoning of his property.

Not surprisingly, quite a few citizens do not think rezoning is a good idea. Concerned about the hotel’s negative impacts on the adjacent neighborhoods and the dangerous precedent a PUD in a residential district would create, they would prefer the owner select an option available through existing HP-1 zoning. The HP-1 district now possesses a wholesome, historical residential ambiance: families raise children there, retirees walk their dogs or ride bikes in the quiet mornings and young students feel safe walking to and from Cathedral Parish School on its narrow streets. Many would like to keep it that way.

The owner has been clear that should he not be granted the PUD for a hotel, he will create apartments at the Dow and rent them to Flagler students or others who cannot afford or choose not to own a home in downtown St Augustine. This “promise” to convert the Dow to rentals for workers, retirees and students seems to be the primary reason some St Augustinians are in favor of the Dow PUD. One enthusiastic hotel supporter even made clear in a letter to Historic City News — referring to “trash and unruly behavior”– that renters were unwelcome in her neighborhood, even though permitted by zoning.

So, those in favor of the hotel are eager to carve out of a residential neighborhood a place for affluent strangers, while disturb at the prospect of apartments for the workers who serve the meals, make the coffee and change the linens for those who can afford a $600 a night suite. But, would it be such a bad thing if those who are behind the success of our heritage tourism industry had housing options that gave them the chance to walk to work and other downtown amenities?

While we know some folks are skeptical of student and worker rentals based on stories of negative experiences, the fact is there are already well-maintained apartment houses in HP-1 that present no problems for adjacent residents. And even if some have had unpleasant experiences with a rental property, is that really a sound basis for our city to ignore its own zoning ordinances?

HP-1 already allows long-term rentals. One more long-term rental in the district will not change anything. There isn’t some owner of a large Victorian house who has been yearning to convert her home into a long-term rental, just waiting for David Corneal to blaze the trail. She can already do it. There is no pent-up demand or “slippery slope” for more apartments in HP-1. If the Dow, once a museum, becomes an apartment complex, that’s the entire extent of the change and impact on the city, except for some additional property tax revenue. No precedent has been set and the fabric of the city’s zoning laws remains intact.

Now, if the PUD is approved and the Dow becomes a hotel, that’s a tremendous change with serious implications for every residential neighborhood in St Augustine. Of the city’s five historic preservation districts, HP-1 is the only one intended for primarily residential uses.

If the City Commission inserts a hotel and bar into the city’s most restrictive district it will create a troubling precedent. If the city can flip a residentially zoned parcel in HP-1 to commercial use just so the owner can maximize his profits, think of what it could do for the benefit of developers in any other neighborhood. Unlike long-term rentals, there is a huge pent-up demand for the substantial revenue possible through nightly rentals. Giving one owner the long-term right to millions of dollars in nightly rental income will attract other developers. This slope is indeed slippery and it is greased with dollars.

Fifty years ago downtown St Augustine around St George St north of Cathedral Place contained many single and multi-family residences. Almost all of these former dwellings are now restaurants, shops, bars and offices. A number of houses were demolished to make parking lots. Do we want downtown south of King to follow the same trend? Rezoning the Dow would be a huge step in that direction.

The trend of commercial interests consuming residential structures in downtown St Augustine is not something that may happen; it is the dominant theme of downtown development for the last half century. There are many properties south of King Street ripe for commercialization and they will be converted from residential uses, one by one, if we allow it. That’s not good for a vibrant, living St Augustine.

We can choose to remain an authentic city if we make choices now to ensure St Augustine’s livability for generations to come. We can build that future by holding the line and maintaining the lawful residential zoning at the Dow.

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