New 91-Space Parking Lot at 1300 Duval is Missed Opportunity for Downtown Affordable Housing and Revitalizing Our Main Street

By Chris Hamilton, July 11, 2020

Have you seen the construction going on at Duval and United? In a city chock full of creative, inventive and entrepreneurial people, how in the world did it come to this? The best use of a huge plot of land at 1300 Duval Street, our historic main street, is a 91-space commercial surface parking lot? That’s a mainland solution to land use. The good people of South Park – “ample parking day or night” – would be proud. The good people of Key West should be embarrassed. Especially since we’re desperately looking for land to build affordable housing downtown and because we’re looking to revitalize Duval Street. What a waste.

A 5-ft. grass landscape buffer concession is lipstick on a pig.

This is a backward step for the City. The owners of the property can’t even say how long they intend to keep it a parking lot. The HARC Chairman (to his credit he hated the proposed use) bemoaned that if the lot proves lucrative, it could be there a long time. And he’s right. Watching the City’s proceedings on the proposal were painful. It seems that because the owners of the property have a currently valid permit to run a parking lot, the City was powerless in stopping them from doing the same thing after they tear down the unhistoric Tropical Rental building and expanding the lot. The City Attorneys said they couldn’t deny the permit because there were no grounds in the code on which to deny it. So they had no choice but to approve it and get a few tiny concessions in the form a a 5-foot grass landscape buffer around the property that includes 100+ plants and a dozen trees. It’s like lipstick on a pig.

These blank spots muffle urban life, deadening the surrounding human environment. There’s no arguing that huge surface parking lots create an atmosphere that is inherently hostile to the pedestrian: dull, unbearably hot in summer, windswept in all seasons, and potentially menacing.

Sarah Goodyear, Bloomberg City Lab

A Failure at Planning for the Future

The failure is still on the City for not thinking ahead. Instead of always reacting to what developers bring them, the City should have identified this parcel a long time ago for redevelopment, especially since there are no historic structures on it. The City should have made the existing commercial parking lot license a non-conforming use, so that when it was sold, that use would no longer be valid. In fact they should have rezoned the property with some bonus density to prioritize getting what they do want. But in order to do these kinds of things, the City has to be more pro-active about its future. The City seems to just process requests. Why aren’t we doing any proactive planning? Instead we get stuck with a huge surface parking lot in the heart of downtown. This is a squandered opportunity.

Interim Uses Could Have Included Pop-Up Retail and the Arts

The City could have also sat down with the owner and talked about other interim uses for all or part of the lot to enliven downtown and perhaps help some struggling sectors of our community. Imagine that space with a bunch of food trucks and outdoor seating. Perfect in our Covid era. Imagine further some of that space filled with giant tents, or reused cargo containers converted for artists spaces or pop-up retail, like the wonderful Art Shack Studios and Galleries out on Stock Island. You could have still kept some parking for those uses, but THAT would have enlivened Upper Duval AND gave some of our struggling entrepreneurs a shot at starting something that could grow. That’s how you do economic development by the way, help small businesses start and grow. But we digress. Why didn’t the City call in the Chamber and the Arts Council to sit down with the owner and talk about the possibilities? No, the owner didn’t have to do anything other than they have done. But had someone showed they cared about what was going on in the middle of our main street, perhaps the new owners would have cared more too. Consider this another reason why Duval Streets needs a business improvement district (BID) (Does Duval Street Need a Business Improvement District?; June 4, 2020) because you can bet any BID worth its salt would have seized on this opportunity to do something better for downtown.

Let’s Get This Right the Next Time

We’re left with what? Hoping that if and when the new owner decides to do something with the property it will be to everyone’s liking and benefit? Or are we going to actively push now for the things we want in the future? A parcel this large and important doesn’t come along to be redeveloped that often. The City and the community have as much right to say what we want there as the property owner. And we can use carrots of higher density to sweeten the deal.

What is needed there is retail, arts, museum/attractions, restaurants or even office space on the first level. With affordable housing on top. And we should provide bonus density to go a little higher to get all the uses we want. While we’re at it the City needs to not ask for any parking minimums with any new development. This is downtown. Let’s expect people to walk, bike and take the bus for goodness sake. We can and should expect better for our Main Street, now and in the future. Let’s be vigilant and proactive in working with the new owner to think better for our future and get it right next go round.

Chris Hamilton, July 11, 2020

NOTE: To those who believe there is a lack of parking and welcome this urban blight, please read this article. We have plenty of parking downtown. The problem is it is badly managed. Here’s some solutions: “The City Raised Bus Fares. Time to Tackle Parking” May 12, 2020

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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