Residents Are PROUD of Oak Street

By: Lori Mazeikis

What would you do if you found out a developer was planning to build a large, full-bar restaurant with live entertainment and outdoor seating, open until 11:00 p.m. across the street from your house? Eighteen-year Riverside resident Kevin Pettway was faced with this dilemma last year. Many people with no knowledge of the law and zoning would probably grumble, maybe call a city councilperson, but ultimately accept it as inevitable,  believing there was no choice. Few people have the resources, funds and time to fight a deep-pocketed developer. Pettway and some neighbors chose to investigate a little to see what options were available. After a neighborhood meeting where the restaurant’s plans were revealed, Pettway says, “That prompted us to start actually looking into the zoning laws and realized that what they were doing is illegal.” Soon after, Pettway and other concerned residents co-founded Positive Riverside Optimized Urban Development (PROUD) to challenge the development.

The location is the 2200 block Oak Street, not far from the historic Five Points district.The site is just under an acre and currently consists of an empty lot where two houses once stood, a building with a fitness center and a long-closed laundry and dry cleaner. Across the street, there is a smoking cessation clinic, two residential homes, a boutique shop with apartments above, and so on. It is a cute, quiet street in an older, historic neighborhood. Some homes in the area are almost a century old. The current blend of residential homes, small boutique shops and businesses open during daytime hours is a successful version of a mixed-use area. PROUD and most of the nearby residents would love to see the property developed to blend with the neighborhood, but do not feel a 150 seat restaurant serving alcohol until 11:00 p.m. and hosting live bands is a good fit for this portion of Oak Street—especially since there would be no barrier to extending the hours to as late as 2:00 a.m. once the restaurant was in operation.

Historic Five Points is just a few blocks away and already has restaurants and shops. Many say this would be an ideal area for this venture, but the property owner and the developers won’t consider any of the multitudes of other more appropriate locations, or consider any other type of development on the property, no matter how profitable it could be. It absolutely has to be this restaurant in this location.

“The zoning device they’re using to put it there, it’s called a PUD, or a planned unit development,” Pettway says. “And what a PUD is designed for is if you’re in a zoning area that has a lot of different uses and you want to take two or more of those uses and combine them onto a single piece of property. Our zoning code disallows any restaurant at all. The law specifically says that any PUD must abide by all land development regulations in place. It can’t ignore prohibitions that are there.”

Early in the process, PROUD began visiting residents for two blocks in either direction. They gathered 129 signatures against the restaurant and found five people for it. One person who is for the development, as planned, is Tenley Dietrich. She owns a small, upscale boutique directly next door to the Pettway home. Dietrich says there are four apartment homes above her shop. She says, “I just want to see the street continue to develop and Jacksonville develop.”

“There is nowhere to eat right in this section,” Dietrich says. “It would be nice to have something walkable.” Dietrich lives approximately three miles away in Avondale and would not have to listen to the live bands performing, or experience the vehicle and foot traffic of 150 patrons streaming out after last call. To her, the possibility of walking across the street for some coffee is worth it, and reiterates, “I have to have food delivered all the time. Five Points isn’t far but it’s not walkable for me.” There are three restaurants and a grocery store just over one-quarter of one mile from her shop’s door. The restaurant has been approved, but PROUD is appealing. Attorneys representing the land owner and developers have filed two motions to dismiss and have threatened to file a third motion related to the issue.

“They know that if this case gets heard on the merits, they’ll lose,” Pettway explains. “So the only way for them to win is to make sure that it never gets heard, so they’re trying to bury us in these motions so that either they get lucky and knock us out with one of those, or we run out of money.”

PROUD has done some fundraising, which according to Pettway, “A lot of it’s just been walking around knocking on doors, or calling folks on the phone.” They have conducted meetings, held a block party, and staged a protest in front of the property. More events are planned, and they have a GoFundMe account, a Facebook page, and a website. The people who live on this quaint, quiet street intend to keep it that way.

As Pettway says, “People around here are very active and proud of our neighborhood.” With the support of Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) and city councilman Jim Love, PROUD isn’t going to stop fighting for the way of life they have built on Oak Street. They are not just doing this for themselves, but for the rest of us as well. Pettway believes everyone in Jacksonville should be concerned about this issue.

“If you have not been victimized by this, it’s only because some developer hasn’t decided that they can make a nickel out of your community yet,” Pettway says. “Everybody is vulnerable. This is the first time that this zoning instrument has been challenged in this way. This case will be case law. It will either be used to uphold resident’s rights, or to diminish them.”

Although it has already been a long and difficult road, and there is far to go, the members of PROUD feel the work they are doing will benefit cozy neighborhoods all over Jacksonville and send a message to high-dollar developers that inappropriate venues are not welcome in homeowners’ front yards.

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