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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 24, 200712:00 PM EST

JEDC: Downtown development process should be streamlined

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission and the Planning and Development Department have been working together to identify ways to simplify the process developers go through in order to bring new projects Downtown.

Staff members from both groups met with City Council member Suzanne Jenkins Tuesday to begin redesigning how Jacksonville government will work with the private sector in the future.

Proposed changes include replacing the JEDC’s Design Review Committee (DRC) with a new entity, the Downtown Development Review Board (DDRB). The DDRB combines the functions of several existing agencies and departments to make it easier to get projects approved and reduce the time between a project’s proposal and its completion.

“Bringing the planning processes and the Design Review process into one system will be better for developers, who like to deal with one entity to carry them through the process,” said JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton. “We want to collaborate with the development community in order to be able to approve better projects for Downtown.

“Development is tough anywhere, but especially Downtown. We want to be able to work with developers on fundamental principles to make them better able to navigate the process.”

The JEDC wants to have six months instead of the current 30 days between a developer’s conceptual approval and final plans. Mandatory pre-development conferences would also make it more likely a project brought to the DDRB would be approved.

“It’s important to get developers to come see us early. We can let them know where the ‘mine fields’ are,” said Barton.

He also said it’s time to clean up Downtown: “The focus over the next couple of years is on the pedestrian experience. It’s time to put some teeth into the appearance ordinances.”

Jenkins said property owners have had more than three years to improve the landscaping on their parking lots to make them look more like the rest of Downtown’s streetscape – and it’s time to see some changes.

“We decided to lead with the carrot instead of the stick, but that hasn’t worked as well as it could have,” she said.

Downtown business signs are another area Jenkins would like to see improved. She said despite ordinances allowing what she called “interesting” signs – those that extend from the side of a building, for example – business owners don’t install them because they’re not aware they can.

“Sign companies are putting up suburban-style signs because they’re not telling business owners they can have different styles of signs Downtown. Suburban signs work for cars, but not for pedestrians,” said Jenkins.

Barton said changing the Downtown overlay and amending some of the zoning requirements would “eliminate redundancies and disconnects. We can streamline the process for developers by reducing the time required for the permitting process, making it possible for developers to get their projects under construction and to the market faster.”

“In the past, the process has taken too long, and that drove developers crazy,” said Jenkins, who added she supports the JEDC and Planning Department working in concert to get projects underway. “We didn’t have that level of cooperation the last time we did the overlay. I’m glad to see leadership and staffs working together.”

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