Update on Seminary Lane: Judge’s final order/ruling

by Janice Garry

In the last Iguana, I wrote that a group of citizens was involved in dissenting against a Gainesville city approval of a multi-building, multi-parking garage development for student apartments in the center of the Seminary Lane neighborhood. 

We had filed an Administrative Hearing Appeal. Of note, this neighborhood was where African Americans had businesses, a school, mostly single-family homes and a thriving cultural epicenter. 

A series of events, capped by the demolition of affordable housing in 2009 diminished the vibrancy of the neighborhood. A promise of rebuilding affordable housing was not kept. In 2020, the city approved a plan for student housing. A group of Seminary Lane residents and concerned citizens took the city and the developer to court, citing breaches in the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code. 

We opined that the project did not fit the character of the neighborhood and broke specific criteria pertaining to traffic control, building access and architectural features. Hearings took place. We awaited the judge’s ruling.

On Dec. 29, 2020, the Administrative Hearing Officer, aka, judge, produced her Final Order. There were wins and losses for both sides. 

The development project was approved with modifications. The largest building is required to have modifications to entrances on each side for public access. Architectural details must be included. 

A smaller building, next to the historic district on the south side of the development, was dismissed. However, the developer may re-submit modified plans to meet the criteria for bordering a historic district. 

There are differing thoughts in the Seminary Lane leadership group on how hard those two changes will be to make, but the re-design of the smaller building seems prohibitive and likely would decrease the number of rental units allowed, thus decreasing profitability. 

Our hope is that the cost of redesign, the decrease in profitability, the current over-built student housing market and the increased cost of construction due to coronavirus repercussions would dissuade the project. 

On the other hand, in its current state, the developer could go ahead with building those parts of the project that were approved, if the entrances to the large building were made. Only time will tell. Fingers crossed. 

Yesterday leadership of the Seminary Lane appeal met to discuss the ruling and plans going forward. 

We recognized that Seminary Lane is one project in a line-up of large, mostly student projects that involve a process with lack of citizen notification or opportunity for input. 

Back in 2017, then City Manager Anthony Lyons changed the approval process so that if a project did not require exception to the Land Development Code, it could be approved by city staff, within the confounds of their office, without input from interested parties or citizens. 

The Seminary Lane project was approved by that process. Codes, like so many things, are subject to interpretation. But there is no opportunity for discussion under the current process. Anonymous stamps of approval are made in the Office of Sustainable Development, signed off by the director, and voila! A massive four building complex with two parking garages is born in the belly of a quiet neighborhood. 

Our attorney tells us that Gainesville is virtually the only city in Florida to have such an amputated system. Alachua County has a process for input. The current system is a part of the heritage of city management that favored developers over citizens. Going forward, it is our quest to return to citizen input for livability and compromise for new projects. 

Adding to the unfairness of the current system, the city has spent over $100,000 during this appeal. Citizen donors have contributed over $15,000 for the appeal. The ONLY opportunity for meaningful citizen input was the appeal process. We’ve also spent from March 2020 through December 2020 providing input that could have happened in a pre-project approval city meeting with government and citizens in a discussion. When there are so many needs, this is a disappointing use of time and resources. 

What’s democracy to do? We intend to keep our watchful eyes on the Seminary Lane project should it move forward. We’re going to follow the review process for changes required by the judge. We’re going to voice our opinion if the building changes do not, in our view, meet the Land Development Code criteria. We’re going to keep local citizens informed. We’re going to talk with city commissioners about the need for process changes that can be written into the current review of the Comprehensive Plan for future projects. We’re going to ask for a process that stipulates that projects over a specified size must have opportunity for citizen input. 

We call on the Gainesville City Commission to reform its process so that residents have a meaningful ability to participate in all decisions affecting the future of their community.

What are you going to do? In the context of an abhorrent, national assault on democracy, it is my belief that we must each step forward and be involved in our communities, in our democracy. 

We are grateful to John Lewis to put it so succinctly “Democracy is not a state, it is an act.” Ambivalence to each other and our government is part of what got us in this condition. Attention to the needs of our fellow citizens and involvement in our communities will get us out. 

We have over 140 interested citizens who receive periodic updates on the Seminary Lane project. We will need folks to send emails to local officials, attend occasional meetings, stay informed and be willing to act when necessary. At this time we do not need funds. If you would like to be a part of this effort, contact Janice Garry at janice.garry@gmail.com. Thank you so much for caring.

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