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Tallahassee Commissioners say they can't block a student housing development near Frenchtown, so they're looking for ways to make the best of it

This is an aerial photo of the plot of land that the city owns. Yellow lines outline the city lot, a lot owned by Chubby's Chicken, Haven of Rest, and Furrin Auto
Via the City of Tallahassee
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Developers want to buy a .26 acre lot from the city.

Tallahassee commissioners are hoping to leverage less than an acre of city-owned land along Tennessee Street to provide more affordable housing near the Frenchtown neighborhood. The plan is part of a contentious move to sell the property to a private developer to make room for a mixed-use development.

The land under debate is a .26 acre lot surrounded by adjacent lots occupied by Chubby’s Chicken Fingers and Haven of Rest Rescue Mission. The developer wants to combine the plots, and one occupied by Furrin Auto, to build a mixed-use development with retail space and about 300 residential units.

During a recent city commission meeting members of the community expressed concerns about the plan.

Whitfield Leland says community members have already been let down by unfulfilled promises following a nearby development built a few years ago. He’s not eager to see it happen again.

“We were tricked by the city to put up that student housing that’s across from the city building from the start and now y’all are fixing to erase our history and put in a development. And according to this, it says that regardless of the sale of this property, the development can still go on," Leland said.

That last part is true. During Wednesday's meeting, the developers told commissioners they’d be able to move forward with their project even if the city opts to keep the land.

Some commissioners proposed pausing the process to encourage the developers to meet with community members before the city agrees to sell the land. But Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox hoped she might have a plan to make the best out of the situation.

“I’m trying to make lemonade here. I’m trying to add a little sugar and make lemonade here because otherwise we’re going to have all this discussion and we’re going to walk away with lemons," Williams-Cox said.

Williams-Cox proposed a motion that would require the developers to meet with neighbors if they want to buy the property and consider plans to provide affordable units as part of the development. She also wants any proceeds from the sale to go to creating more affordable housing on other city-owned lots in the Frenchtown neighborhood.

“Whatever the amount that is negotiated, that amount, whether it’s $100 or $1-million, for that property, it should be reinvested in the community, in Frenchtown for affordable housing. Normally, when there’s a sale of property it goes to the deficiency fund, but I’m asking for an exception here that since it’s happening in Frenchtown this is where it needs to go,” Williams-Cox said.

But Commissioner Jeremy Mattlow raised concerns the plan doesn’t have enough teeth.

“How many times have we asked for public engagement or a meeting with a neighborhood and just checked the box and moved forward? That is exactly what’s going to happen here. And that’s nothing against the developers, cause why would you change your business plan? You have something that works. You know what you want to do. You’re going to move forward with it. If I were in the position I would do the same thing. I would meet with the neighborhood if there was a small thing I could do. I wouldn’t alter my entire plan for .26 acres. Nobody would," Mattlow said.

The developers said they want to hear feedback from community members and Commissioner Curtis Richardson pointed out the commission will have another chance to vote before the sale goes through. This vote is just allowing the negotiations to begin. He says that will give commissioners another chance to ensure the developers have plans to meet community needs. The motion from Williams-Cox passed. But Commissioner Jack Porter says she thinks the commission needs to look for a longer-term solution that might give neighbors greater control over future development.

“We need to revisit our zoning because it is correct that there’s nothing we can do at this point to just stop this project altogether even if we wanted to ... And the integrity of Frenchtown every day is under attack,” Porter said.