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Jax Daily Record Friday, Feb. 19, 202105:10 AM EST

Renew Arlington: Plan to reduce blight is off to a slow start

So far, six of 125 businesses have applied for city financial assistance to meet 2019 zoning standards designed to improve the neighborhood.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

When the Jacksonville City Council approved a plan in June 2019 to combat blight in Arlington with new commercial property design standards, it started a six-year clock for businesses to come into compliance.

According to the city Office of Economic Development, six commercial properties have filed initial applications for the Renew Arlington Mandatory Compliance Grant seeking public financial assistance to meet the new standards. 

They are among 125 commercial properties the city estimates will need to be brought into compliance by the May 1, 2025, deadline.

Husband and wife hair stylists Aaron and LaVonia Gipson own and operate Hair Formations Salon at 7435 Merrill Road and filed an initial Renew Arlington grant application in August. Aaron Gipson said the application process can be cumbersome. 

“I would say that there are more roadblocks for us and we anticipated there would not be. So I would say we’re no further ahead than we were back in August,” he said.

According to the economic development office, no compliance grant money has been awarded as of Feb. 16 and no project application has been approved.

The overlay

Community stakeholders and commercial business owners in the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area debated design standards for the zoning overlay with district Council member Joyce Morgan and the Renew Arlington Advisory Committee for years before they were approved.

The updated landscaping, signage, parking and fencing standards aim to increase commercial property values and encourage more business investment in three major business corridors: 

• University Boulevard from the Arlington Expressway to Fort Caroline Road.

• Merrill Road from University Boulevard to Interstate 295.

• A section of Arlington Road from University Boulevard to Rogero Road.

The Council voted 19-0 in February 2020 to add the reimbursement grant program for landscaping, fencing and signage to the zoning overlay ordinance.

Aaron Gipson, owner of Hair Formations Salon at 7435 Merrill Road, shows an area of his property that needs to be brought into compliance.

Kirk Wendland, executive director of city economic development, said in a Feb. 16 email that the COVID-19 pandemic “modified priorities” and impacted the pace at which the city is processing the applications and businesses are filing.

“There is also a fair amount of analysis and potentially permitting approvals that go into the review process,” Wendland said.

“So some applications may move very quickly and others may take several iterations. No two will be exactly alike.”

Wendland said the program could exceed the city’s $7.33 million cost estimate, but officials expect the money to be there to pay for it.

The grant money comes from property tax dollars collected for the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area Fund. 

In February 2020, the city projected 5% revenue growth in the fund through fiscal year 2024-25, which would bring the balance to an estimated $8.96 million. 

“Revenues are coming in above the projected levels so we still feel confident there will be adequate funds to cover the cost of the program,” Wendland said.

The grant reimburses commercial business owners 100% up to minimum overlay standards for the removal and replacement of fencing and existing signage to bring the property into compliance. 

The grant program also reimburses some costs associated with landscaping and creating larger buffers to separate properties from the street and from residential and adjacent commercial sites. 

According to Wendland, the city does not provide direct aid for costs upfront. 

Applications pass through the Renew Arlington design review process to ensure the plans can pass the city’s 10-set review process.

College Park, the former Town & Country Shopping Center, is the largest commercial property inside the Renew Arlington Zoning Overlay.

College Park

College Park, the former Town & Country Shopping Center, is the largest commercial property in the Renew Arlington Zoning Overlay. The 18.27-acre center is the only applicant as of Feb. 16 to provide the city preliminary project costs. 

In paperwork submitted June 22, JWB Real Estate Capital President and College Park project title manager Alex Sifakis estimates it will cost about $1.4 million to bring College Park’s landscaping, buffers and fencing into compliance.

Costs include construction, engineering, permitting and installation of landscape buffers and screening, trees, irrigation, sod and other expenses.

JWB plans to remodel and expand the 200,000-square-foot center with a shipping container food court and park, two apartment buildings, public open space and a potential Ellianos coffee shop.  

Sifakis said Feb. 12 the overlay standards, coupled with the compliance grant, will improve aesthetics and will bring long-term benefits to Arlington’s business corridor. 

Sifakis said Feb. 17 that because College Park’s compliance costs are preliminary, he did not want to estimate how much of the costs the grant will cover. 

The program rules state that any mandatory compliance grant exceeding $100,000 needs approval from the Renew Arlington Agency board, which manages the CRA.

“It’s enabling us to do a much better project,” Sifakis said. “I think the overlay will make the whole neighborhood a more attractive and pedestrian-friendly corridor.” 

Small business choices

For small business owners in the overlay, the application process and paying for the compliance work upfront can be a challenge.

The Gipsons purchased their Arlington store in 2007 for $115,000 after launching Hair Formations in 1999. 

Aaron Gipson said Feb. 15 the couple invested $160,000 to convert the 1,296-square-foot house and 0.19-acre property for their salon. 

The Gipsons said they are unsure how much it will cost to bring their property into compliance. 

The Hair Formations property is zoned Planned Unit Development and the Gipsons said city officials told them the property needs to be rezoned to qualify for grant funding. The rezoning could cost about $2,000.

The business could have had the rezoning costs waived last year through a city COVID-19 relief program that temporarily suspended some city fees for developers, but Gipson said they were not aware of the waiver.

“What it boils down to is that in order for us to even be a candidate for the grant, we would have to go ahead and resolve the rezoning from our own pocket because we missed the deadline,” he said.

Council approved $30,435 and the economic development office hired landscape architect Brian Wheeler of GGI-Tapestry LLC to provide business owners with free draft designs for compliance upgrades.

The Gipsons said Wheeler has inspected their property, which needs new fencing and tree buffers. An unused driveway apron also must be brought level with the sidewalk.

If the property were to remain zoned PUD, Gipson said they also would have to remove several feet of concrete behind their building for hard surface compliance standards.

Wheeler recommended the rezoning. 

“He said, ‘Mr. Gipson, you have to weigh it out. It’s probably going to be cheaper for you to do the rezoning, pay the $2,000,’” Gipson said. 

At 58 and 50 years old, respectively, Aaron and LaVonia Gipson are weighing whether the cost of compliance outweighs potentially selling their business before the May 2025 deadline.

Wendland said the grant applications received since June are for projects that are “more on the complex end of the spectrum.” 

He said city economic development officials want to ensure all eligible businesses in the overlay understand the grant process.

“We’re prepared to walk you through the process,” Wendland said. “Please reach out to our office for additional details.” 

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