The City Commission approved Butler Enterprises' requests to change the redevelopment and expansion of Butler Plaza. The project will be an open air town center with retail, office, hotel, and residential space near the intersection of 34th Street and Archer Road. Butler Plaza currently holds over 1 million square feet of retail space, including spaces currently available for lease in Esplanade at Butler Plaza.
By Anthony Clark | The Gainesville Sun
In a six-hour meeting Wednesday night, the City Commission approved requested changes to the long-discussed future redevelopment and expansion of the Butler Plaza retail hub along Archer Road.
The changes move a planned open air, walkable town center from the north side of the property to near the intersection of Archer Road and Southwest 34th Street. At its new location, the town center would, in the words of Butler Enterprises' representatives, be the "gateway" or "showcase" for the development.
The approved changes also loosened requirements for the internal road system inside the development.
The allowable block size inside the development increased from an average perimeter of 1,600 feet to a maximum of 2,000 feet in most areas of the development and a cap of 3,200 feet in the northwest area where big-box stores, including a new Walmart, are planned.
That change in block size will spread out the distance between the streets inside the development. Commissioners also approved a request to allow "maneuvering lanes" to link parking areas in the development.
Those maneuvering lanes do not meet the city's legal definition of a street. Representatives for Butler Enterprises said that use of maneuvering lanes will cut costs because those lanes will not require underground utilities or sidewalks on both sides.
The project is divided into four "sub-areas" and the thresholds on development are now project-wide after the elimination of separate caps on the allowable square footage of development for each area.
Butler Plaza began in the mid-1970s with one shopping center on a former airstrip and has grown to some 1 million square feet of retail and restaurants.
Butler Enterprises has eyed expansion for more than a decade and received approval in 2012 for 2.5 million square feet of retail space, 250,000 square feet of office, 500 hotel or motel rooms and as many as 1,000 apartments or condominiums. None of those development thresholds increased with Wednesday's vote.
Omelia Lazzari, a principal planner with the city, said Butler Enterprises could not build out everything it has approval for because there is a cap — 37,591 average trips per day — on the traffic that the development can generate.
The expansion and redevelopment will more than triple the traffic generated from the current average of 12,224 trips a day.
The project will span some 267 acres along Archer Road from Southwest 34th Street to Interstate 75 and include the current plaza and the site of a former mobile home park to the north of the current Butler Plaza.
The developer's requested land use and zoning changes both passed 6-1, with Commissioner Thomas Hawkins in dissent. Prior to the land use vote, commissioners debated at length, going so far as to review Roberts Rules of Order for conducting meetings, and eventually voted down an amendment Hawkins sought to an initial motion Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls made to approve the developer's request.
Hawkins sought to go back to the smaller block size and bring back the requirement for streets instead of the maneuvering lanes. Hawkins said those changes would help vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Butler Enterprises representative Gerry Dedenbach countered that those changes would do away with the "flexibility" the developer needed to make the project work and draw in tenants, particularly in the area eyed for big-box stores.
In response to Hawkins' concerns over pedestrian access in that area for larger retail stores, David Theriaque, an attorney representing the developer, said people drive to buy big-screen televisions.
Hawkins countered that drivers become pedestrians after their cars are parked in the store's lot.
"I've never driven a car inside a Best Buy or a Walmart," Hawkins said.
When Butler Enterprises' request went to the Plan Board, an advisory board to the City Commission, in February, Hawkins appeared to speak against the changes sought to block size and the internal road grid.
That prompted a March letter from Theriaque to the City Attorney's Office raising concerns about whether Hawkins would be fair and impartial when the issue reaches the full commission.
The developer sought changes to prior land use and zoning approvals.
When considering zoning applications, commissioners serve a "quasi-judicial" function, meaning they are supposed to limit outside discussions of an application and base decisions solely on evidence presented at a public hearing.
In his first meeting after winning election in April, Mayor Ed Braddy read excerpts from the letter Butler Enterprise's attorney sent and he played video clips of Hawkins' comments to the Plan Board. He said that Hawkins spoke about the zoning application that night and that raised questions about the impartiality of the City Commission.
"Your participation on this item reflects on this board as a whole," Braddy told Hawkins.
Hawkins said he raised a policy issue about roads that night and did not speak in opposition of the zoning application.
"My only question is how much time you spent splicing together video," Hawkins told Braddy. "I'm flabbergasted."
Commissioner Todd Chase said Braddy raised a legitimate issue.
Commissioner Lauren Poe, on the other hand, criticized Braddy for playing the video clips, saying "this entire episode devalues the process."