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Sunday, June 13, 2021

A zoning change blindsides Suburban Heights residents

The zoning change would allow for the construction of six-story buildings to overlook back yards

A "Suburban Heights" sign sits at Northwest 23rd Avenue on Thursday, May 20, 2021.
A "Suburban Heights" sign sits at Northwest 23rd Avenue on Thursday, May 20, 2021.

Residents of Suburban Heights successfully thwarted plans to build drive-thru businesses behind the neighborhood. But now, they’re worried about the potential for a large housing unit to go up instead.

Controversy over development on the city block located on the corner of Northwest 23rd Avenue and Northwest 43rd Street, across the street from the Millhopper Shopping Center, spans back to 2018. A church located on the property was torn down that year days before it was set to be considered for historic preservation at a Gainesville Historic Preservation Board meeting.

Three years later, Suburban Heights residents continue to express concerns after the original development proposal on the surrounding property threatened to increase traffic. Now, a new zoning change threatens to build an apartment complex that could loom over residents’ back yards. 

Local resistance toward the original proposed drive-thrus led to a city commission vote on April 28 where commissioners voted to get rid of plans for any drive-thrus on the property, much to the relief of residents. However, the city’s proposed rezoning of the property could allow for a park and a mixed-use residential building with storefronts up to six stories tall.

The new zoning designation, called Urban 7, allows up to 80% of the land to be used for possible buildings such as hotels or liquor stores, and apartments with up to 50 housing units  per acre. The new designation also does not put a limit on business hours.

“We were all thunderstruck,” Harry Shaw, a retired UF English professor who has lived in Suburban Heights for 47 years, said. “We were geared up for the snares of the developer, but then lo and behold we were caught in the bigger snares of the city itself.”

Shaw said he opposed plans for a drive-thru because it could cause more traffic than other businesses. The design of the proposed plaza would force some traffic into the neighboring residential streets, he said. 

The initial fears about increased traffic were not suppressed by the new zoning designation because large buildings might increase traffic either way, Shaw said. Now, along with the traffic concerns, there are fresh worries about a building overlooking neighboring back yards.

Meredith Goodrich, president of the Suburban Heights Association, is a light sleeper. She said she is concerned the lack of a business hour limit would make noise and wake her up at night as she lives directly behind the lot.

“I don’t think other people notice sirens in the city, but I still do,” she said. “It wakes me up all the time, so to have a business close by like that would be very disturbing.”

Residents generally aren't opposed to development at that corner, but they want their concerns to be heard, Marsha Mott, a UF Health promotions coordinator and Suburban Heights resident, said.

“We elect commissioners to make decisions that aren't necessarily always easy decisions, but we also elect them to do what’s good for citizens,” she said. “I don't know that what they did reflected what the citizens of Gainesville want.”

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Commissioner David Arreola attended a Suburban Heights Association meeting with residents on May 13 at 7 p.m. to address concerns about the zoning change. He apologized for the abruptness of the changes and reassured attendees no plans are concrete at the moment. 

Arreola said he too was surprised by the last-minute change, and even though creating more housing in Gainesville is on his agenda, he sides with the residents.

“I am a fan of infill and dense housing. I think it helps connect people to their neighborhoods,” he said. “But look, if neighbors don’t feel that’s an appropriate place for dense infill housing, then that’s something that has to be considered because they’ve been there for quite a while.”

Mayor Lauren Poe wants to listen to what residents have to say, but he said his wish is to see the property be used for housing.

The property is close to jobs, shopping, transit routes and everything that would help people live without cars, Poe said. 

“To create a use on that piece of property that doesn’t allow for any kind of housing and a couple one-story buildings is just not an effective use of one of the last pieces of property in the urban core of our city,” he said. 

Wilson Development Group, the Atlanta-based development company in charge of developing the lot, has also been in contact with the residents, Kevin Frazier, a development partner at the company, said.

The original plans that included potential drive-thru businesses took two years to develop, Frazier said. The rezoning took place two weeks ago, so the developers do not have concrete answers as to what will go into the property yet.

Frazier is scheduled to attend next month’s Suburban Heights Association meeting where he hopes to continue having conversations with residents.

Goodrich appreciated Commissioner Arreola’s willingness to sit down with frustrated residents at the May 13 association meeting and said she felt more optimistic afterward.

“There’s work to be done and letters and fliers and all that sort of thing to happen, but yeah I was very encouraged,” she said.

Contact Alex Lugo at alugo@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @alexlugo67.

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Alexander Lugo

Alexander is a fourth-year journalism student at UF. This is his first semester at The Alligator where he is covering university administration. In his free time, he enjoys taking hikes and going for bike rides. 


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