Last week the Mobile Planning Commission unanimously approved the rezoning and planned unit development for a shopping center anchored by a Publix at the corner of Old Shell Road and Florida Street, the site of the old Augusta Evans School.
The zoning changes still have to be approved by City Council, but with the district’s councilperson, Fred Richardson, and the council’s representative on the Planning Commission, Joel Daves, both in support of the project, it looks like it will be greenlighted. In addition, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson told WKRG he was also “excited” about the plan, saying he thought it would help alleviate “somewhat of a food desert in that area.”
So it looks like “shopping will be a pleasure” in Midtown sometime in the not-so-distant future. But some neighboring residents as well as the advocacy group Midtown Mobile Movement feel anything but “pleasure” with the commission’s decision.
Residents on surrounding streets obviously worry about noise and traffic, while the MMM feels the design is not in keeping with the Map for Mobile, a comprehensive plan for future growth the city commissioned (and it wasn’t cheap) but which will not be part of the zoning regulations for another couple of years.
While MMM has always maintained they were not against the development itself, they had hoped the final plan would be more walkable and pedestrian friendly. They also wanted the buildings to be closer to Old Shell and Florida, with most, if not all, of the parking in the back.
Though Midtown Mobile Movement did not ultimately get all they wanted, their efforts led to some concessions and compromises by the developer and most certainly made the final design much better than the original. And though I am sure they feel this decision was a loss in some ways, they should be commended.
I have had many conversations with my fellow MiMo-ers about this during the course of this debate, and the emotions have been predictably mixed. Those who live in the development’s backyard are, of course, envisioning sitting out on their decks and hearing the sounds of La Croix trucks unloading and car doors slamming.
Another concern I heard from surrounding residents was the kind of tenants that would accompany the Publix. One friend whose home is adjacent to the site said while they felt it would be filled with desirable businesses at first, they feared it could devolve into dollar stores and payday loan places like other Midtown developments have in the past, therefore lowering their property values.
Some MiMo-ians are on the “anything is better than an empty dilapidated, abandoned school” train, while others are worried traffic is just going to be a nightmare. I worry about that too. Springhill Avenue already gets extraordinarily clogged and backed up at times, so having even more flowing into it from Florida Street is concerning. But I have to think city traffic engineers took that into account. (If not, we shall curse you!)
And then there is absolute jubilation by the die-hard Publix aficionados of Midtown (which sounds like a club) who are thrilled they don’t have to drive all the way to Airport and University anymore. One of my own neighbors was lamenting that journey is an hour and a half for him even on a Sunday afternoon.
I get both the excitement and the fear felt by my various friends and neighbors. But it looks like we are getting this, so instead of “borrying trouble” (like my Mama always said I liked to do — and yes, she meant borrow) and worrying about all of the horrible things that might happen, I am going to focus on the positives.
I am a promiscuous grocery store shopper — I use different ones for different needs — so it will be nice to have another option. And the mayor is right, depending on what part of Midtown you live in, there are pockets where there really isn’t a convenient grocery locale, so this will definitely help fill in the blanks, or rather the “food desert,” which sounds way more dramatic, so let’s go with that.
But really I am more hopeful the other available properties will be filled with stores MiMo could really use more of as well, like lunch spots, high-end restaurants, fancy-drink bars and boutiques. The right ones could really elevate property values. And if the development becomes a destination, hopefully it will only serve to speed up efforts to make Midtown have more of that “village vibe” with sidewalks and seating, and make the goals of the Design Old Shell Road plan and Map for Mobile more attainable in a shorter time frame.
But the “positive” I really want to focus on is just how great it is to have the opportunity to have this discussion or spar (whatever you want to call it) with multiple out-of-town developers on projects like this. They obviously see our potential.
Just a handful of years ago, if the school board or other entity abandoned a building, about the best we could hope for is that the owner would keep it maintained on the outside while it sat vacant, because it was going to do so for years.
But now, look at all of the activity in MiMo. This development, the revitalization of Old Shell Road School, the proposed coffee shop at Bluebird Hardware and the Marine Street Lofts in the OGD are all prime examples of how Mobile is a city on the move. Please pardon the chamber-of-commerce-sounding cheese, but it’s true. And in three of those four projects, the developers were able to revitalize existing structures that had been vacant and eyesores for years.
And thankfully, I don’t think things are going to slow down anytime soon.
While it is absolutely vital for us all to stay vigilant about what we want for our neighborhoods and our city, it is nice to be wanted and these discussions are great problems to have. Some may even say they are a pleasure.