As Roger Austin drives down a street in his Suburban Heights neighborhood off NW 43rd Street, he quickly accelerates to 45 m.p.h.
“This is the Indianapolis 500 Speedway,” he said.
That’s because Austin was trying to mimic what he said traffic is like every day that passes through the neighborhood.
“They’re up to 40, 45 miles per hour before you know it, racing down this street,” Austin said as he pointed from house to house and listed the ages of each child that lives there. “8-year-old there, three kids under 8 here, two kids under 8 there.”
He and other neighbors’ concerns are now growing.
At the nearby corner of NW 43rd Street and NW 23rd Avenue sits the abandoned St. Michael’s Episcopal Church that the architectural engineering company CHW Professional Consultants wants to replace with a shopping center. Stores like Starbucks, Walgreens, a fast-food restaurant and a bank with a two-lane drive-thru would be built.
The development would take all of the historical church property, along with some of the conservation area that backs up to homes in Suburban Heights.
“This is my backyard. This is where my kids play,” said Tracy Staples, a mother who moved to the Suburban Heights neighborhood within the past few years. “If there’s traffic and noise, it takes away from the experience in your own backyard for something that we don’t need.”
Michael Raburn, the lead pastor of Gainesville Vineyard church that currently calls home to a 30-year-old building on NW 8th Avenue, said his congregation has offered to buy St. Michael’s and restore it so that his church can move there but said the current owners were not yet willing to consider his offer.
“In our own search for where we’re going to land for the next phase of our church’s life, we’ve said this space would be great for us,” Raburn said. “We are willing to commit our resources to restoring the building and property to be here for many years as a community church servicing Suburban Heights and the neighborhood around us.”
Residents of Suburban Heights have already gathered more than 1,200 petition signatures in opposition to the construction.
“I was hoping for maybe 200 signatures,” said Danielle Dixon, a resident who organized the petition. “But as you can see, I’m up to 1,236 signatures in opposition.”
In order for CHW to be allowed to officially buy the property and construct businesses, the area would need to be rezoned for commercial use. The Gainesville city plan board will meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. to vote whether or not to rezone the area. But that vote will only be a recommendation to the city commission which has the final say.
“I have to protect neighborhoods,” District 3 City Commissioner David Arreola said. His district includes the church and the proposed shopping center. “If they vote to rezone it, it will come before the commission, and at that point I will vote no and I will encourage my colleagues to vote no.”