A plan that could shape the face of Brunswick for generations to come will be back under consideration by city commissioners in early October.
The Glynn Avenue Design Framework is a comprehensive plan that would set new guidelines for future development along U.S. Highway 17 — also called Glynn Avenue — from the Sidney Lanier Bridge to Golden Isles Parkway. It’s set for a city commission vote Oct. 4, and it’s anybody’s guess whether it will pass.
The 61-page document is aimed at sprucing up the corridor and creating new rules that affect everything from streets to buildings to parking lots and lighting. It would be the first major ordinance change for the area since temporary rules were set in place more than a decade ago.
City staff say the plan is needed to encourage smart, pedestrian friendly growth along the highway, but some landowners inside the zone fear the rules could scare away developers and make their property less attractive to buyers.
Ron Adams is one of those landowners. He and his family purchased the former Dixie O’Brien paint factory at 2700 Glynn Ave. in 2004, hoping it would be an investment, Adams said Wednesday.
“This is an area that’s eventually going to be developed,” Adams said. “I have expected that for some time. My family and I believed enough in that that we invested.”
But now, Adams is worried the Glynn Avenue Design Framework will restrict anyone who may one day buy his land and not allow them to build the type of development he envisions.
“For example, if a grocery store, like Publix, wanted to locate on (Highway) 17, that would be a boon to Brunswick and a good use of that land,” he said. “But this plan limits that. It wouldn’t work for a grocery store operation.”
That’s in part because the design guidelines limit how big a building can be. For lots that face Glynn Avenue, the maximum building size can be 15,000 square feet, according to a draft of the guidelines. For comparison, the Walgreens at the corner of F.J. Torras Causeway and Glynn Avenue is about that size. For off-Glynn Avenue tracts — dubbed “main street” lots, the buildings must be even smaller: about 8,100 square feet.
That’s a sticking point for Adams, who is also the Glynn County Clerk of Superior Court. He doesn’t believe the city should restrict him or any future landowner from building a large development, like a big-box retailer or condo complex.
“They (city officials) seem to ignore the fact that Glynn Avenue is a federal highway that carries 34,000 cars on it every day,” he said. “This plan essentially says no big-box retailers. My opposition to some components of this plan have been consistent for a long time.”
THE FISH AREN’T BITING
Adams isn’t alone in his concerns. John Dow, owner of the former Golden Isles Inn at 3302 Glynn Ave. has similar issues with the framework, but also thinks the city is seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. By his account, developers just aren’t interested in the area. He said Friday he’s not sure why, but the fish just aren’t biting.
“I have tried desperately,” he said. “I’ve talked to brokers in Las Vegas, New York, the midwest — I’m proactive in trying to find someone that would be the first to buy that property and really make a statement of what Glynn Avenue can be. No one’s interested.”
Dow, a former city manager of Coral Park, Fla., and no stranger to local regulation, said Brunswick’s best asset is its existing lack of restrictions on development — something he thinks the framework would change.
“When I talk to developers, my proposal is that the city of Brunswick is the most development-friendly entity in Glynn County,” he said. “The city embraces development. They want people in. It’s a blank canvass.”
He added that placing new restrictions on an already languishing swath of land would be counterproductive and further turn developers off to Glynn Avenue.
Bren Daiss, the city’s planning and codes director, has been the quarterback of the Glynn Avenue Design Framework, which was developed under city contract by the Savannah-based planning firm Symbiocity. She said Thursday the goal of the plan is to create a sense of place and not let Glynn Avenue turn into a sprawling shopping center complex that relegates the poet Sidney Lanier’s famous “Marshes of Glynn” into a parking lot.
“The idea is that we don’t want this place to become Anywhere, U.S.A.,” she said. “For example, if you look at Canal Crossing (a shopping center off Golden Isles Parkway), that’s near the interstate. This is closer to downtown, and should be a smaller scale with neighborhood-style development.”
That’s not an idea that Daiss pulled out of thin air. In the lead up to the framework’s creation, the city held a series of listening sessions and public input. Most people said they wanted small-scale development with pedestrian friendly access. People love the marsh views, they love the small-town feel of Brunswick and they value the community’s identity, the surveys showed.
And getting it correct now is important, she added. For her, the iron is hot and the time to strike is now, before poorly planned, clumsy development takes hold.
“Once a building is built, it’s there,” she said. “You’ve lost that opportunity.”
Daiss said the design framework isn’t as restrictive as its detractors have claimed. To her, it offers a variety of options as to what buildings can look like, how tall they can be and how they’ll be built.
“(The framework) is a form-based hybrid,” she said. “It allows for more flexible options to developers and property owners.”
“Form-based,” she explained, refers to how buildings and streets interact and allow people to easily move around them.
GOALS, NOT REQUIREMENTS
One thing Daiss and people like Adams and Dow agree on is that the design framework is confusing to people who aren’t city planners or developers.
Asked by The News to explain it to a hypothetical fifth-grade class, she said: “I’d want to go on a field trip. I’d want to be on the street and explain the difference between good development and bad development. I’d want to show how pedestrians interact with a neighborhood.”
Being able to walk is important, she added. The Target shopping center on Altama Avenue is a good example, she said. If a person goes to the Michaels craft store on the far end of the development, and then wants to go to Target, they’d have to drive, she explained. The goal of the Glynn Avenue Design Framework is to prevent that by only allowing smaller buildings that people can easily walk between and window shop.
But landowners who stand to reap or lose substantial investment see it otherwise.
“In general, I’m in favor of planning that enhances a major gateway to our community and promotes economic development,” said Adams. “... But we don’t want to be so exclusive that no one wants to use us.
“I think the idea of trying to have a well landscaped, attractive zone is a worthy goal,” he added. “But these are a list of mandates. I would say they should be listed as goals, not a list of requirements.”
APPLES TO CHEVROLETS
Dow, for his part, thinks the plan is all wrong. He thinks the framework envisions something Glynn Avenue isn’t capable of ever becoming. He used the example of the St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville, Fla. For anyone who has never been there, it’s a swanky new development with high-end shops like Coach, J. Crew and Lacoste.
The scale is walkable, and can feel like a purpose-built neighborhood — just without the housing and instead with more retail space than could be visited in one day.
Dow thinks that’s not the destiny of Glynn Avenue, and he’ll have the chance to make that case Monday when property owners, city staff and representatives from the firm that created the plan sit down for a stakeholders’ meeting.
“I just don’t think that’s going to happen here,” Dow said of a Town Center-style development. “We’re not even talking apples-to-oranges comparisons, here. This is apples to Chevrolets.”