The North Shore debate over whether to finally approve an ill-fitting, big-box Publix grocery store on North Market Street, one that faces inwards toward the middle of a parking lot the size of two football fields, ended Wednesday night in favor of the store and the mayor's office. The latter, regrettably, greased the skids months ago for approval of a design that arrogantly, needlessly, violates the core C-7 building standards that other developers in the North Shore have willingly followed.
The flawed approval process raises questions: Why did approval go down this way, when the debate was not about acceptance of a Publix grocery per se, but rather about the character and property tax value of a design that fits the North Shore zoning plan? How can city planners improve their regrettable record on urban projects which demand more appropriate designs before they are prematurely green-lighted? Shouldn't the city establish an urban design and architectural/preservation office to assure that development proposals in the urban core meet key standards before they go for approval by appointed citizen boards, like the North Shore C-7 Design Committee.
Publix has amply demonstrated in other cities that it can meet higher urban standards. (Google the company's West Palm Beach and Tampa stores). It clearly could have delivered a higher-value store here: Up to eight-times higher in property tax return for the city's investment in urban renaissance and infrastructure, according to a new review of the Publix design approved Wednesday. And higher in value with regard to appropriate mixed-use enterprises that provide improved public and pedestrian use of urban space and quality of life.
The North Shore C-7 Design Committee's conversation about these values relative to the suburban-style proposal Publix presented for North Market Street was derailed from the start by Mayor Ron Littlefield. Publix apparently presented his office a prototype big box proposal that fit its convenient suburban pattern, and that wrongly channeled 18-wheeler tractor-trailers through the heart of the Frazier Avenue pedestrian district and adjoining residential streets. And Littlefield and his public works office rammed it through the C-7 design committee before the design and its truck-traffic pathway could be properly vetted.
Unfortunately, the store's design violates the values and strict legal requirements the C-7 guidelines were drawn to protect. But traveling on the design committee's premature conditional approval -- a vote made under Littlefield's persuasion -- every modification since then as been on cosmetic details and a partial facade of small retail stalls along a fraction of the site's North Market Street boundary. No multi-story/multi-use building for the store or for structured parking was seriously considered; neither was the requirement for sidewalk-oriented retail commerce along the full length of the North Market Street site north of Manning Street, which now will become just a big parking lot.
Weary advocates of a design that inched closer to the C-7 guidelines sought Wednesday at least to reserve a strip of land along the North Market frontage north of Manning Street for future retail store space. Using a study developed by Joseph Minicozzi to assess local property tax values here for various levels of development, they also showed the total annual city property tax return for the current Publix proposal was just $44,827 --an eighth of the value for a store built to accommodate surrounding mixed-use commercial and dense residential development.
Alas, their arguments were lost to a board that prematurely painted itself into the corner of conditional approval for small changes, and to a crowd ginned up to support the current proposal on the fear of losing a North Shore Publix option altogether. There's a good lesson to be learned here. A responsible business wouldn't want to build by downtown if wasn't considered a profitable site. And the city shouldn't rush to give away, on the cheap, a site made far more valuable by immense public investment in the city's rejuvenation of downtown and the riverfront.