A developer wants the city to consider turning a St. Armands parking lot into a mixed-use hub anchored by a hotel. Could that one day become reality?
| 6:00 a.m. May 7, 2021
Gavin Meshad wants to make clear that he doesn’t have any formal development plans for the Fillmore Drive parking lot on St. Armands Circle. He just sees a lot of potential there.
On May 17, Meshad is scheduled to give a presentation to the City Commission on behalf of commercial development firm JWM Management outlining a preliminary concept for a hypothetical mixed-use project on the 1.98-acre city-owned parking lot.
A slideshow presentation shared with the city and obtained via a records request highlights details of that conceptual design: a 98-room boutique hotel, a 15,000-square-foot grocery store, six townhomes and 270 public parking spaces, maintaining the capacity of the existing lot.
Meshad described the concept and the associated renderings in the presentation as a “cartoon,” a first crack at imagining what could be built on the Fillmore lot, located in the southeast quadrant of the Circle. But Meshad wants to seriously gauge the commission’s interest in facilitating the eventual development of that site.
“I think the thought is that it’s an underutilized city asset,” Meshad said.
It’s unclear what action, if any, the commission may take. Through spokesperson Jason Bartolone, the city declined to comment substantively, stating it was premature prior to the commission meeting.
Meshad said he saw the presentation as an opportunity to see if the commission shares his thoughts on the Fillmore lot’s potential as a development site. If the answer is no, he said, then his company will know not to dedicate any more time to producing a more detailed plan. He’s hopeful the answer is yes, and that the city will work to advance the concept in some form.
“The purpose of the meeting is more to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea — is there a will and a desire to explore it?’”
The commission has multiple options for conveying or leasing a city-owned property that does not necessarily require a formal bidding process, Bartolone said. But the scope of the proposed development would require a series of regulatory changes that could take up to a year to finalize.
For months, the St. Armands Business Improvement District has been discussing zoning changes on St. Armands Circle that could facilitate hotels, residences and taller buildings. The BID is a self-taxing city body of St. Armands property owners.
Members of the BID board — including Meshad— suggested the Circle would benefit from rules that were more accommodating of a mixture of uses. Hotels are not permitted on the Circle, which BID board members suggested was incongruous in a tourist district.
At meetings in March and April, the BID began to refine its vision for regulatory changes on the Circle. In addition to pursuing permission to build hotels, the group hopes to make it easier to build residences.
Most of the group’s desired changes can be achieved via a zoning text amendment, which requires Planning Board and City Commission review. But one additional revision — increasing the maximum building height from 35 to 45 feet — would require a comprehensive plan amendment, a process that requires supermajority support from the commission and state review.
As the BID has discussed the possibility of reshaping building rules within the Circle, board members have emphasized the importance of building consensus with other stakeholders on St. Armands Key.
The group has pledged to communicate with and gather input from residents. Already, the group has heard some preliminary feedback from Chris Goglia, president of the St. Armands Residents Association, who spoke at the March BID meeting. Goglia said he anticipated there would be diverging opinions among residents about the future of the Circle, but he signaled at least one issue he anticipated could garner concern from people living nearby is the development of the Fillmore Drive parking lot.
“St. Armands only has about 210 houses on it, and many of those houses are right next to this thing, and many of those houses are a block away from this thing,” Goglia said. “I think that is probably what the residents would be most concerned about: what is currently a big flat piece of land, what kind of giant structure could go there?”
At that meeting, Meshad shared his intent to pursue development on the Fillmore parking lot. He said that in addition to the review processes for the zoning code and comprehensive plan amendments, a potential project on the parking lot would require another step allowing public input and city oversight.
Meshad said the presentation to the commission was a first step. Meshad said he’s already had some preliminary conversation with St. Armands residents, and should the commission express interest in pursuing a project, he said his company would conduct community outreach and provide opportunities for public input.
The presentation asserts there are a series of public benefits associated with the concept design. In addition to maintaining the parking spaces, the design includes burying overhead power lines, eliminating visible retention ponds, enhancing landscaping, providing public restrooms and creating a parklet area.
The presentation also echoes comments made at recent BID meetings, arguing that a hotel development would not negatively affect traffic in the area. The presentation suggests adding hotel rooms in the Circle could cut down on vacation rental activity in nearby residential areas.
The presentation states the grocery store would provide a needed amenity for barrier island residents.
“The proposed concept has been designed with a strong focus on providing a project that will benefit the Circle and the community alike,” the presentation states.
Goglia said the residents association wouldn’t take a stance on the proposed zoning changes unless a strong majority of residents came out in support of or opposition to the revisions. As an individual, Goglia said he was still sorting through his thoughts on how the changes might affect the Circle — and, by proxy, its surroundings.
“If approved, will this happen all at once? Not likely,” Goglia wrote in an email Wednesday to the residents association. “But someone will go first, and then others will follow, and then you'll likely see consolidation of the smaller buildings.”
Ahead of the presentation to the City Commission, Meshad emphasized the project was conceptual.
“There’s a lot of mountains to move before something could happen,” Meshad said.
Still, he’s eager to move forward with a thorough community conversation about the future of the Fillmore lot.
“It’s sitting there, it’s not providing much to the community and it merits some further discussion,” Meshad said.