Charlotte SUN Editorial: There has to be compromise

The Daily Sun | Sunday, 28 August 2022

The Charlotte SUN’s Position: It’s no surprise the proposal for developing the City Marketplace property in Punta Gorda has caused a controversy.

The 5.61-acre hole in the middle of downtown Punta Gorda has remained vacant almost two decades for a reason.

That reason is partly related to the up-and-down economy and the fact that every time a potential buyer comes forward with an idea for development, it gets shot down. Either the City Council disapproves of the plan because of buildings that might be too tall to meet city codes; residents worry it will bring too many people and traffic to the downtown area or it just isn’t pretty enough.

The latest, somewhat enticing, offer by Geis Real Estate was put in front of the public last week when the city’s Planning Commission debated whether to recommend the plan to City Council. A mostly anti- development crowd estimated at nearly 200 people showed up and expressed their feelings rather forcefully. At times a couple of unruly anti-development speakers became so animated that police officers were summoned to keep order.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, there were calls for changes to how members of city boards — like the Planning Commission — are chosen. It was a not-so-subtle hint that commission members were remiss for allowing their meeting to get out of hand to the point of drawing rare negative publicity for the city.

People are passionate about Punta Gorda. They love the quaint downtown. They don’t want their view spoiled and they don’t want more traffic. A popular idea — which was documented in a petition with nearly 1,000 names — was to just make a park out of the vacant land.

That sounds great, unless you’re the person drawing up the city budget, or a family with modest financial means who really can’t handle tax hikes every couple of years.

Punta Gorda, as is widely recognized, places the burden of paying the city’s bills and financing its growth on the backs of homeowners. And, it’s probably true (although we have taken no survey) that most of the people clamoring against developing City Marketplace are comfortable financially.

The city can’t afford to allow 5-plus prime acres of potential tax revenue to remain vacant. It would be irresponsible.

Even given the wild idea that a couple dozen well-heeled city residents could come up with a few million to buy the land and, say build an amphitheater and park, there would be no steady revenue stream in future years.

But, at the same time, the city can’t ignore the groundswell of opposition to the Geis plan. Even TEAM Punta Gorda, in a column on today’s op-ed page, is against the plan.

What’s the solution. A compromise, we believe, although there is no reason to believe Geis would maybe give up residential units and other parts of its plan in order to quiet the anti-development crowd.

Is 400 residential units too much? Even though it won’t happen overnight, to drop what could amount to 600 to 900 or so new residents in downtown Punta Gorda would have a big impact on local businesses. And that doesn’t even take into account the vehicles that would be using city streets to get here and there. One possible solution to the parking issues and traffic is if the city and county could come to some agreement to finally move forward with a parking garage on the Convention Center property. But that is likely a long way off, if it ever happens.

We’ve not studied the “market area” included in the plan but we can say without hesitation there needs to be a little more green space, more square feet for retail and fewer housing units.

That idea won’t be easily accepted by Geis, which we’re sure is paying a pretty penny for the land, and could very well be a deal breaker.

Two things need to happen. Punta Gorda residents need to accept the fact this property has to be used for retail and some housing units. It can never be just a park, as nice as that would be.

And developers need to understand the passion, tradition and beauty we have in Punta Gorda. We’re not in the development business, but we believe there is money to be made without turning downtown Punta Gorda into a mass of concrete and steel.