Examining redevelopment in the Capital City

By: Mariel Carbone
May 15, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – Nearly two centuries of history make up the story of Tallahassee; all of it, marked by one constant: change.

“Well, you’ve got to expect it,” said David Lang, President of the Tallahassee Historical Society.

In its infancy, Tallahassee was a more rural community. It then began to grow, with the downtown marked by local business. Now, downtown is filled with state government buildings and office space and the community is growing and expanding upwards and outwards.

“It came from a very sleepy southern town where everybody knew each other on the streets to a situation where you can walk anywhere and not see anyone you know, almost,” said Lang. “We’re really seeing a huge change in our community right now as far as building and population.”

Over the past several months these changes, defined by rezoning and redevelopment, have caused tension in the community.

In Frenchtown, the City’s decision to sell a parcel of land to a developer for a student housing complex led to a protest, petition and call for action.

"Student housing is not part of the Frenchtown heritage,” said Cheryl Collier-Brown, a former Frenchtown resident.

In Myers Park, the City’s consideration of rezoning and redeveloping a nearly 10 acre parcel of land led to packed commission meetings, lawn signs and matching red clothing.

"I really can't stand how this is affecting our historic district,” said Karen Cooley, a Myers Park resident. The development there did not move forward.

In Killearn, a private property owner’s request to rezone, sell and develop a portion of the Killearn Country Club also led to packed public meetings and local controversy.

"Putting houses in people's backyards is not appropriate here," said Laurie Davis, a Killearn resident.

And the list goes on and on.

Each case very different, but the outrage the same.

“At its core Tallahassee is a vibrant community that is going through some growing pains of a healthy growing area that has high demand where people want to live and work,” said Ben Pingree, the Director of PLACE- short for Planning, Land Management and Community Engagement.

Right now, the population in Tallahassee is estimated at 287,671. But, by year 2030 it’s expected to grow by more than 40,000 people. According to the City of Tallahassee and Leon County, to keep up with demand, more than 19,000 new units of housing are needed.

Some said an increase in development is necessary to handle that.

“One thing you can’t do is say, ‘The way it is now is the way we want the future to be and we’re not going to allow any change because the world is swirling around us and change is happening,” said Bruce Stiftel, Chair of the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech.

Stiftel said both the local planning department and residents need to keep an eye towards the future.

“We have to expect that tomorrow will be different than how today is. And we need to think about how to be competitive and how to be attractive and economically successful and socially viable in tomorrow’s environment rather than today’s,” he said.

He points to another city, nearly 400 miles north of Tallahassee, as a redevelopment success story. That city-- Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Back in the late 1960’s Chattanooga was considered one of the “dirtiest” cities in America. That was followed by decades of economic decline, as jobs left the city and went overseas. By the mid-80’s and early 90’s leadership decided a radical change was needed to bring the city back to life.

To create a plan to move forward, city leaders talked with thousands of residents across the city and met with expert consultants.

“They defined a new vision of what they wanted to be,” he said. “Sustainability was a big part of what they talked about, and rediscovering their access to the river.”

The city began to embrace the waterfront, built a new aquarium-which now attracts tourists from all over- and built a new pedestrian mall. Leaders also started to change their approach to attract talent in the city, working to retain young people rather than seeing them move away to other places.

“Part of that strategy has morphed into putting up a gigabyte Wi-Fi canopy over the entire city, part of it is having a business incubator where experienced entrepreneurs help young entrepreneurs figure out how to get started, part of it is a workforce trainer program and part of it is urban design, having a place where people like living in,” said Stiftel.

Parallels to that can be seen right here in Tallahassee.

The City is working to implement Wi-Fi in all city parks. Entrepreneur and workplace incubator Domi Station operates in Collegetown. City leaders are creating plans to help with workforce development. The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce has launched its GrowTLH initiative, helping to grow business from within. And, the City is working to create an 18-hour downtown, attracting people to move into the city.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen the alignment that we see today,” said Pingree.

He attributes the boom in development to several things including the growing population, a booming economy, and the city reinvesting itself.

“There’s an amazing thing that happens when any community purposefully reinvests in itself with public infrastructure. And what studies across the nation have found is that for every dollar that you spend on key infrastructure on quality roads and parks and schools and storm water, that there are tens of dollars from the private sector that will follow that public investment,” he said.

Specifically, Pingree is referring to infrastructure improvements at Cascades Park and along Gaines Street. Both projects have drawn the interest of developers in the surrounding areas.

And, many expect the development to only continue.

According to the City, there are several major developments planned across the city. Those include Southwood, Fallschase, Southside, Welaunee, Summerfield, Park Place PUD and Colin English. If those are all developed, they could account for nearly 14,000 more units.

All of those developments fall within the USA or Urban Service Area, which is a boundary for urban development set back in 1990. According to the Leon County Government website, the USA, “allows for concentrating density where infrastructure is readily available. The USA also allows for preserving the quality of the rural neighborhoods and reduces the need to expand infrastructure.”

The USA, plus the City and County’s comprehensive plan are intended to protect inappropriate development from happening in the area.

Still, with these restrictions in place and more development in the pipeline, it begs the question, “How to balance the benefits of development with the objections and desires of local residents?”

Stiftel acknowledges that this is a core challenge for any kind of urban revitalization, but that ultimately the City and the residents need to get on the same page.

“Ultimately if both groups don’t come to some equilibrium about where the community is going, it’s not going to get there because you’re going to have opposition at every step along the way,” he said. “So I think there has to be a lengthy discussion. There has to be a data rich discussion, there has to be a discussion that respects the values and the opinions of the people involved.”

“The fact that you’re having conflict and protests is sort of a canary in the coalmine. It’s sort of the alert that there’s a need to do some work. To find the solution and hopefully you hear that message and you’re going to begin that important work,” said Stiftel.

With all the recent controversy, the City has worked to include residents more. In addition to regular public participation at commission meetings, commissioners have been making home visits to concerned residents, the planning department has been hosting community information meetings and leaders have used bargaining power to get developers to work with neighbors.

“I think the community conversation on the number of issues and development is completely normal. Moreover the rules that have been adopted by our local policy makers are directly intended to engender these kind of conversations towards resolutions on each one of these development opportunities in our community,” said Pingree.

More meetings and more communication are changes some residents said they can get on board with.

"We want to have some input on what goes on in our community,” said Collier-Brown.

"We've got a heritage here, we just don't want to see it lost. You've got to do a little give and take anywhere you go on something like that. But, it's got to be well thought out,” said Lang.

Making all the recent protests and development discussion, just one more chapter in the Tallahassee history books.

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