Friday, November 04, 2011

Mixed signals

The voters of Cocoa Beach will be voting on November 8 to express their opinion on whether to allow a zoning change in a small section of downtown to allow mixed residential and commercial. This sort of change requires a unanimous vote of the Commission and the one dissenting member forced this referendum to measure the voters' opinions. The exact language on the ballot is below.

Shall the City of Cocoa Beach adopt mixed use for downtown/Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA)?

The downtown/CRA vision plan developed over the last three years includes mixed use as a method to revive our local economic conditions and improve the downtown environment. Do you approve of allowing an additional mix of retail and residential uses downtown as long as it does not exceed the city-wide density caps as set in the City Charter?

[ ] Yes, to approve

[ ] No, to reject

Seems pretty straightforward at first glance (overlooking the words "revive" and "improve") yet there are some opponents to the change. Ostensibly, this will allow residential and business to occupy the same building. Proponents of the change have printed posters showing hip downtown areas in other cities with cafes and shops at street level and apartments above as the example of what one's "yes" vote will yield. I like it. But there is some confusion. I have been told by one downtown business owner that, if the vote is not yes, he will be closing his business because he wants to build, not residential, but more commercial above the existing business. Huh? I questioned his understanding of the vote but he is convinced that he can't build commercial on top of commercial without a yes vote. I hope someone more informed than me can help me out here. Does current zoning in the affected area prevent commercial on top of commercial? Is this business owner misinformed?

It seems doubtful that in the current economy one could sell new housing downtown for more than the cost to build. Same cost/returns math goes for rental units. Given that, what is the reason for the strong push to relax restrictions now? Greater possible uses of a property make that property potentially more valuable. It's a no-brainer for owners of the property affected. Even if current economic conditions don't support immediate change it still makes sense. Get it locked in while you can. Build or sell later when the economic climate will support the mixed use. This is where we get to the opposition's main point.

Even though most think nothing is going to change now, even with a yes vote, the idea that the door has been opened for changes in building restrictions causes concern for the opponents. The question in the referendum includes the language "as long as it does not exceed the city-wide density caps as set in the city charter". It does not say "height and density limits will never be allowed to exceed current levels". It stands to reason that a property whose value would increase with mixed use would also be worth more with greater allowed height and/or density. If a downtown building is worth $X under today's restrictions and is potentially worth $1.5X with mixed use, what would it be worth with doubled height and/or density limits? $2X, $3X...$5X? Pandora's box? Can we trust that height and density limits will never be relaxed? Just asking.

Living in Cocoa Beach just outside the city limits, I can't vote. Even if I could, I do not know today how I would vote. I like the way our downtown is especially with the recent changes (above; paver sidewalks, landscaping, etc.) and I want the businesses downtown to thrive. I also think it would be cool to have a downtown as pictured on the "Vote Yes" posters. I just don't know if that is what will materialize. Could there be "unintended consequences"? I'd appreciate any discussion and clarification. Repeating; I am neither for nor against.