The Tallahassee City Commission voted 3-2 to move forward on negotiating a no-bid 0.28-acre land sale in Frenchtown but only after two commissioners exchanged political jabs.
Frenchtown is the oldest historically black neighborhood in Florida. The city has owned a small lot in the neighborhood along West Tennessee Street next to Chubby’s Chicken Fingers since the 1990s. With this decision, the city will begin negotiating selling the property to a private development company looking to build a mixed-use project across from Florida State University’s campus.
A few months ago, the city received an unsolicited communication from a Chicago-based developer, Peerless Development, about purchasing the property. The developer is looking to include the property in a project that will include about 300 residential units and 15,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial/retail space.
Tallahassee holds the final piece of the development, with the prospective buyer already establishing purchase contracts with two adjacent property owners, including Thomas Carella (Furin’ Auto) and Cash Back Chain, Inc. (formerly Haven of Rest).
The developer is working on a deal with Taylor Family Trust (Chubby’s Chicken) to buy a section of their lot behind the city property.
Included in the Commission’s decision to move forward with sale negotiations were requirements that money made from the sale go toward affordable housing in Frenchtown, as well as requiring Peerless to meet with members of the community. The motion was supported by Mayor John Dailey and Commissioners Dianne Williams-Cox and Curtis Richardson.
Commissioner Jeremy Matlow expressed concern that the developer had not met with Frenchtown residents before asking to begin negotiations. He also disagreed that a sale should begin the no-bid process without knowing how much the property was worth.
“How can we determine the best interest of the city without knowing the dollar amount, without knowing what those in the neighborhood want?” he said.
Matlow also expressed doubt that the developer would meaningfully communicate with Frenchtown residents or that the Commission would hold the developers responsible if they failed to meet, before he opposed the motion in the meeting and on Twitter.
“We are setting this up for failure, we are setting this up for a conversation that is not going to deliver on,” he said.
Richardson pushed back against Matlow’s remarks, speaking loudly into his microphone.
“I could not disagree with you more,” he said. “You are anticipating what they and what we are going to say and do. I would not accept a vote if communication with the community does not happen.”
Richardson’s “Yes” when supporting the motion was audibly louder than the two other supporters.
Williams-Cox, who made the approved motion, agreed with Richardson, saying she would not approve any sale if community meetings do not take place.
Joseph Patrick, a representative of the developer, said they had not met with members of Frenchtown yet but will before a sale is made. He said he believes the development fits in with the community.
“Our goal is to create value for this corner in the community,” he said. “We feel this is a win-win for us as a city and for the neighborhood.”
Eight speakers who showed up at the meeting for public comment, including some Frenchtown residents, disagreed.
One speaker said the city-owned lot was the former spot of one of the first black theaters in Tallahassee, and development meant for FSU students is not what the neighborhood needs.
“We have enough student housing in the Frenchtown neighborhood,” he said. “This is erasing our history.”
Another speaker voiced safety concerns about placing student housing along Tennessee street.
“Have you driven around there at night? It’s dangerous,” he said.
When making her motion, Williams-Cox told Patrick to expect residents of Frenchtown to be vocal with them about the project.
“The neighbors, they’re not shy. They are going to tell you what they do and don’t want.”
Wednesday’s vote just begins the negotiation process. The property sale will not be before the Commission again until 2022.