A liquor store that’s set to open on Golfair Boulevard across from the KIPP VOICE Academy K-7 school has nearby residents up in arms.
Gurpeet Singh, who lives in St. Johns County, plans to open the store soon in the Northside Jacksonville neighborhood. Meanwhile members of the Metro Gardens Neighborhood Association are opposed to the idea that the liquor store is the best way to revitalize a neighborhood that has been beset by blight.
Neighborhood association President Lydia Bell says residents were not properly notified about the store in time to try to stop it. They plan to boycott the business.
“No one from 32206 was there. How ironic is that?” Bell said this week about the July 2020 Jacksonville Planning Commission meeting, conducted over video chat in early pandemic days, when the commission approved Singh’s zoning exemption request to allow him to sell liquor.
The property, a former gas station that had fallen into disrepair, is zoned as “Commercial Community/General-1,” which allows beer and wine sales but not hard liquor without approval from the commission.
In early 2020, KIPP Jacksonville was in discussion with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to lease a parcel it owns across the street at 813 Golfair Blvd. for a new charter school. The paperwork was not finalized until after the Planning Commission approved the liquor store’s exemption.
KIPP VOICE Academy opened in time for the 2021-22 academic year. It educates nearly 800 elementary- and middle-schoolers, largely from Northwest Jacksonville and the Westside, as Singh’s company has been working to turn the vacant and disrepaired former gas station into the liquor store.
“I’m a family man who has two kids. I do understand their perspective,” Singh, the store owner, tells Jacksonville Today. “Our construction and our planning started before the school was in the picture.”
He says the permitting and construction process took a couple of years “because we are a small business.”
Singh says he and partners purchased the property as an investment in 2019 because of its proximity to Interstate 95. Its adjacent parcels were also commercially zoned, and the property across the street, owned by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, was vacant. It would become KIPP VOICE Academy.
In Duval County, liquor stores within 350 feet of a school generally require a waiver from the commission, with some exceptions. Singh didn’t have to seek the waiver because the school didn’t yet exist.
By the time KIPP Jacksonville leased the eight-acre parcel from JTA when the transportation authority had deemed the land surplus to its needs, Singh says he had no idea KIPP had been working with JTA on plans for its school across from his own vacant building. KIPP Jacksonville leadership declined to comment for this story.
“I have been in this community for over 10 years,” Singh says. “We started our first business on Golfair Boulevard in 2012. We have run our business as a community-based business. …I’m not a multimillionaire or a billionaire, where I see a property and I buy it. That property, we saved and worked hard for and bought it.”
Singh operates or owns a handful of gas stations in Jacksonville, Palatka and Daytona Beach through LLCs, according to state business records. The unfinished Brentwood location is his first liquor store.
An exemption catches the community off guard
In a 35-page analysis in July 2020, city staff recommended the Planning Commission deny Singh’s company’s request for a zoning exemption to sell liquor.
“The proposed liquor store is an intense use that is not needed in the Brentwood neighborhood along Edgewood Avenue,” the analysis stated, apparently mistaking Golfair Boulevard for Edgewood Avenue.
The staff analysis said the store was not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and that the Brentwood area needed redevelopment that is “family or neighborhood friendly,” along with the fact another liquor store was less than a quarter mile away. It also mentioned the plans for the KIPP school.
Today, the proposed store is close enough to the school that children on the playground can see the entrance clearly. Singh says he is willing to build a fence to further separate the store from the school.
The Jacksonville Planning Commission granted the exemption on July 23, 2020. A 21-day appeal period came and went.
In the meeting, Jacksonville chief of current planning, Folks Huxford, told the commission his department did not recommend the exemption, in part, because of the plans to build the school.
“We’re not sure that the two of them would be compatible across the street from one another,” Huxford said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “But mostly, it’s based on our concern about the hindrance of redevelopment of the area. It is a very old corridor.”
Land use attorney Paul Harden, representing the store owners, told the commission it should consider the location as a quadrant of the interstate exit, not as part of a neighborhood.
The interstate exchange had an average annual daily traffic count of 120,500 vehicles in 2022, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, Golfair Boulevard, where the proposed store and school are located, had average traffic of 15,800 vehicles.
Harden made a count-your-blessings argument that the zoning at the time would have allowed for a used car dealership or strip club on the property. He also noted the JTA-owned property would need to be rezoned — which it subsequently was — in order to accommodate the KIPP VOICE Academy.
Harden was one of five members of the public who spoke at the seven-hour meeting back in 2020. Current City Council member Tyrona Clark-Murray — who was a private citizen at the time — was among the four people who decried the development over Zoom or emailed their opposition to the commission.
Planning Commission members indicated a liquor store may not be the ideal usage, but they still found the exemption acceptable.
“As nice as a cultural arts center or something like that (is), we’re at the mercy of whatever, you know, private enterprise is going to put there,” Planning Commission member David Hacker said at the time. “So, if it’s between this vacant building and nothing, I tend to side with the applicant and the improvements that come with this building.”
The Planning Commission unanimously approved the exemption.
The meeting took place while social distancing was encouraged, local hospitals were perilously close to capacity and nearly a dozen Jaxsons a day were dying from COVID-19.
Bell says she did not receive notice about the July 23, 2020, meeting and has enlisted lawyer Jack Webb, a former City Council member, to represent the Metro Gardens Neighborhood Association in its fight against the store. It’s not clear what legal avenue the association has yet to explore. (Editor’s note: Webb has been a contributing columnist for Jacksonville Today but he was not involved in the reporting of this story.)
In an Office of General Counsel memo shared with Jacksonville Today, the city says it sent notice of the Planning Commission’s 2020 meeting to 19 property owners as well as nonprofits and neighborhood associations. Two of the people who spoke out against the development in the Planning Commission meeting, including Clark-Murray, were on that list. A public notice about the proposed rezoning was published in the Jacksonville Daily Record on July 8, 2020. That notice included the wrong address — it said “7865 Golfair” instead of 865 Golfair Blvd. — but the correct parcel number, #031960 – 0000.
Nevertheless, at a Metro Gardens Neighborhood Association meeting this week, Brentwood resident Ameena Shareef asserted the neighborhood was not involved in the exemption discussion.
“Their research did not have anything to do with what effect that liquor store would have on the community,” Shareef says. “The fact that you would even consider putting it (so close to) an elementary school, or a school period, that’s crazy. …These are not his children. These are not children of his community. It’s not across the street from his children’s school.”
Singh says he’s heard the criticism on local television news and wants residents to know he is not “a monster” who sells alcohol to children but a small business owner who seized an investment opportunity.
“If I had known what I know today,” Singh says, “I wouldn’t have built a liquor store.”