What’s Next for the Northwest?

Compared to other parts of town, the North Monroe/U.S. 27 corridor hasn’t seen much change over the last 20 years, and there may not be much more growth in the near future.Pacing ItselfNorth Monroe Street and U.S. Highway 27 continue to bustle. But over-capacity roads and concurrency laws will prove challenging to new growth in this corridor.

By Jason Dehart

Looking at North Monroe Street up to Interstate 10 a casual observer notices a well-established commercial and retail corridor with lots of hotels, motels, fast food stops, restaurants, supermarkets and many other enterprises stretching up to Fred George Road.

It’s a bustling, busy corridor with popular shopping centers like the Tallahassee Mall. Travelers hop off the interstate and dine at the Cracker Barrel, and businessmen fly in to Tallahassee using the small commercial airstrip north of town.

But compared to other parts of Tallahassee, this North Monroe/U.S. 27 corridor hasn’t seen much change over the last 20 years, and there may not be much more growth in the near future.

Because of capacity problems in the northern part of the county, in the short term, “it doesn’t appear that there’s going to be … a great deal of continued forward movement or northern movement of development,” said Fred Goodrow, chief of comprehensive and environmental planning for the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.

Like many places around the city and state, North Monroe is about to bump up against Senate Bill 360, the new concurrency law that will end up limiting development in areas where there are overcapacity roads, schools and water supplies.

Senate Bill 360 basically says to developers if you’re going to put in a new development, you have to make sure schools and transportation infrastructure is taken care of along with the houses themselves. Because we can’t just keep absorbing kids and cars without first being able to accommodate them.

One major problem in North Monroe deals with roads, Goodrow said. This corridor is at more than 110 percent capacity. He said many of roads in the greater Tallahassee area are at that 110 percent level, and the rest are at 100 percent capacity.

“This basically means we can’t approve projects that are going to impact those roads,” he said.

Goodrow said the new rules may only guide the placement of development, not necessarily bring it to a stop.

“This is going to have a significant impact on where development goes . . . and it’s going to have significant impact on what development even gets approved,” he said. Hence, any new development may look to set up shop in areas of the county – or in neighboring counties – that haven’t reached capacity levels. “Where we grow is going to depend again a lot on the capacity of the roads and the capacity of the schools, and how we address those particular issues. There’s not a lot of room to move to the north.”

Realtor Chip Hartung, of Hartung & Noblin, said the new concurrency rules will “seriously impact development.”

“Well, you know, it’s going to seriously impact development, you know it may bring development to a halt at some point,” he said. “I would think most of us in the real estate business are hopeful that that gets modified or amended in some way to, because as it sits right now I think it’s going to probably cause development to stop. The price tag that’s associated with what the developer has to do will make a lot of projects not feasible.”

Tallahassee City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey agreed.

“On the issues of the new concurrency rules flowing out of Florida Senate Bill 360 – for example, proportionate share of transportation and the new school concurrency – these new rules will heavily impact growth and development in our community,” Lightsey said. “While the proportionate share rule makes developers pay for their impacts on the roads, unless the impacted roadway is in an approved capital improvement plan, no permit to develop can be granted.”  

Goodrow said many proposed amendments to the city/county Comprehensive Plan have already been denied, with more to come when SB 360’s new rules pertaining to roads takes effect Jan. 1. While officials follow the letter of the law, the spirit of the concurrency law could be broken by unintended consequences.

“If people come and we have to deny projects, they’ll (go elsewhere) and that population will occur in the surrounding counties,” he said. “SB 360 doesn’t address the impacts of that leapfrog development at all. It absolutely promotes urban sprawl. It’s the biggest unintended consequence.”

“SB 360 does promote urban sprawl, like other growth management rules, they appear counterproductive,” said Lucas Hewett of GVA Advantis. “We’re shooting for smart growth, but what happens is we try to have smart growth and developers are forced to look for areas that have concurrency capacity on their roads.”

One such area might be “over the river” in Gadsden County, Hewett said.

“In an open market you will go where there is capacity, and Gadsden would love to have a higher tax base,” he said. “Midway is rapidly expanding, growing very quickly, for that very reason.

“As Tallahassee grows, and starts to squeeze, the course of least resistance is the north-northwest corridor,” Hewett said. “It hasn’t been a big push because Tallahassee doesn’t grow at that pace, (but) we’ve seen industrial deals leave Leon County, and go into Gadsden County, we’ve seen Tri-Eagle and Anheuser Busch go to Hammock Creek Commerce Park, a St. Joe park, on Highway 90 in Gadsden. Also, with the raise in median home prices in Tallahassee, we’ve seen the fastest growth in attainable housing is in Gadsden County. We’re seeing commercial and attainable residential and industrial business along Highway 90 west and I-10 and U.S. 27 north in Gadsden County. Across the river is the only way to go.”


Calling For Creative Solutions

Too much congestion and not enough money plague the problems of over-capacity facing North Monroe Street, as well as other corridors in Tallahassee. It’s a big headache for transportation planners.

“What makes that significant here is that most of our major roads are state roads and the Florida Department of Transportation funding for improving them is wholly inadequate,” Commissioner Lightsey said. “That’s why you see Tallahassee advance funding these roadways (with reimbursement from the state in later years) or paying for their improvement outright with Blueprint 2000 funds. I think once the real impacts of SB 360 are known, the Legislature will have to act to amend it.”

“There are no plans that I know of in the next five years to address North Monroe in its over capacity state,” Goodrow said. “There’s no money in five years, so what that basically means is any projects that are going to impact North Monroe aren’t going to get approved – as long as the state statutes stay the way they are right now. So in terms of growth in the northwest area, especially north of I-10, there ain’t going to be much.”

Trouble of it is, if there was money, it takes years to plan and build a new road system. All the while the number of people using the road increases. That means the transportation infrastructure is always behind the eight-ball.

“To start off, this problem is not unique to Tallahassee. Just about every metropolitan area in the nation is probably about 20-30 years behind the curve on road widening/capacity projects,” said Cherie Bryant, transportation planner for the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department. “It’s the very nature of transportation planning – it takes about 20 years to plan, fund and build major roadway projects. Then, once they are built, most are at capacity again in about five years or less as people switch to the newer road.

“The point is that we will never be able to build enough roads to meet demand, especially considering costs have increased by four to five times since 2000,” Bryant said. “And widening past four lanes usually creates a barrier which negatively affects neighborhoods nearby and makes pedestrian/cycling very dangerous.”

 More Mass Transit the Answer?

One possible answer to the growing capacity crisis is creating more mass transit opportunities, but that won’t necessarily reduce the number of cars on the road or the amount of congestion.

“If anything opens up new capacity – such as lots of people on transit, road widening, new routes, etc. – that capacity will soon be filled because people will change their behavior to take the fastest, easiest route,” Bryant said. “But the goal of putting more money into transit infrastructure is not necessarily to reduce congestion, but instead to move the most people most efficiently, while preserving the integrity of the neighborhoods, trees, air quality, sidewalks, etc.

“Because the population will continue to grow, and we will not be able to widen roads enough to account for all that growth, we want to have enough routes going enough places at quick enough intervals to provide a viable alternative to the single occupancy car,” she said. “Transit might not make the congestion better, but without it, congestion will get a whole lot worse.”

Bryant said a long-term plan to support transit will also include land-use measures to make it easier for new development and redevelopment to come in at higher densities along new transit routes so that more people really are living and working near transit stops. Routes connecting Tallahassee to the surrounding counties should also be included in that plan. 

“Everyone won’t switch to transit, of course. But this is one piece of the puzzle for more sustainable growth. For example, according to the American Public Transit Association, if as a nation, just 10 percent of our daily travel needs were switched to transit, we would reduce our dependency on foreign oil by 40 percent, which is about what we get from Saudi Arabia right now.”


High Traffic Means Good Business

High traffic is a double-edged sword in Tallahassee-Leon County, and North Monroe Street is no exception. According to a one-day city traffic count conducted by the public works department, 45,900 cars flowed through the stretch of road between John Knox Road and I-10 on Feb. 14, 2006. The interchange at U.S. 27 and the interchange is very healthy, and hosts 13 hotels totaling 1,712 rooms. But contrary to popular belief, it does not have the highest concentration of rooms along the entire length of I-10.

“It is common folklore that at one time Tallahassee had the largest number of hotel rooms,” said Sharon Liggett, president and CEO of the Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It may have been true once upon a time; if we had it now, that would be super. But we do have a high number of hotels out there with a lot of rooms.”

Meanwhile, that area has also traditionally been a very strong retail area, according to Hewett at GVA Advantis.

“It’s close to I-10, and this is your main entrance,” he said. “North Monroe has some of the highest traffic counts in the city. It ranks in the top 10 in the city, so historically it has had strong retail corridors. We had the Northwood Mall that everyone frequented. It was the community mall which was replaced by the Tallahassee Mall, and because of that major retail center it became a significant retail corridor.”


The Competition Next Door

While the commercial growth is well-established on North Monroe Street south of I-10, it is less evident just north of there. There are at least two factors causing this. One is Lake Jackson, and the other is Capital Circle Northwest.

“That corridor is less viable than Highway 90 west, and Capital Circle Northwest, because of proximity and amenities,” said Lucas Hewett. “On the west side of town you’re closer to the university, the airport, and downtown, all those things are very accessible from that northwest corridor, as opposed to going north from I-10 (on U.S. 27), the roads haven’t been improved in a long time, development in general isn’t as attractive on U.S. 27 as it would be on U.S. 90 west or Capital Circle Northwest.”

“The biggest issue that I think exists with U.S. 27 North is called Lake Jackson,” said Chip Hartung. “So much of what exists out there is in the Lake Protection Zone, that the prospects for more development out there . . . are very limited. What I see happening north of Lake Jackson, I mean north of I-10, especially on U.S. 27 north, is more re-development than new development.”

“Capital Circle Northwest has been our strongest industrial sub-market,” Hewett said, noting the various office and industrial parks such as the Commonwealth Center that are located along this road west of North Monroe.

“Commonwealth Center was at first a municipally developed industrial park,” Hewett said, “where major corporate tenants are located. Industrial users are between I-10 and (Tallahassee Regional Airport), they have signalized access to Capital Circle, which makes ingress and egress easy, and it’s a nice industrial park with covenants to make sure it is a premier industrial area of town.”

“Capital Circle Northwest is almost a whole other sub-market,” Hartung said. “There is plenty going on out there and more to come. But I think 27 North, we’ve just about seen, I think, what commercial development is going to take place out there. And again, it’s due to the lake protection zoning relative to Lake Jackson. It really will hinder any future development north of I-10.”


Lake Jackson Figures Prominently

No discussion about North Monroe Street/U.S. 27 can be complete without bringing up the subject of Lake Jackson, a popular 4,000-acre fishing lake renowned for its ability – and tendency – to dry up and disappear every few years.

The first inhabitants of the lake region were the ancestors of the Apalachee Indians, who built a complex of large ceremonial mounds near the lake around 1000 A.D., but moved to other parts of the Apalachee Province around 1500. The Apalachee all but died out when the first Europeans came to Florida, and in the mid-1800s the lake region was part of Col. Robert Butler’s cotton plantation. The state established Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park in 1972.

Today the lake is cited as a recreational gem, and is starting to emerge from years of decline caused by development and construction of the interstate.

“It’s been a combination of commercial and residential development that led to the degradation of the lake,” said Matt Aresco, a scientist who used to live on and study Lake Jackson.

To protect the lake’s natural resources, in 1974 the state designated Lake Jackson an “Aquatic Preserve.” It’s also been designated an “Outstanding Florida Water Body.” In the 1990s, a special lake protection zoning district with stringent development codes was created to limit densities near the lake.

“Most of the east side of 27 is designated for lake protection purposes; in other words, there’s a higher standard of development required on that side,” said city/county planner Fred Goodrow.

The odd thing about Lake Jackson is every once in a while, when conditions are right, sinkholes cause the southern part of the lake to empty. A major drawdown occurred at Porter Sink in September 1999.

“It was an amazing sight,” said Jess Van Dyke, a biologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who witnessed the drawdown. “Fish, alligators, and birds (Grebes too muddy to fly) were fighting for their lives. Young men were risking their lives, netting large bass. There has been another complete drawdown of Porter Sink this year, so it will take time and rain for the fish and wildlife to recover.”

The natural drawdown allowed the Northwest Florida Water Management District and other state agencies to go in and dig up tons of unhealthy bottom muck from the Meginnis and Ford arms in 2000 and 2001. This was done as part of the Lake Jackson Management Plan, through the state’s Surface Water Improvement and Management program.

The cure for drought and low water levels is rain, and in September 2000, the lake was helped along by Tropical Storm Helene. But a month later another drawdown happened, and the lake refilled during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. Porter Sink drained again in 2002 and 2003. Normal rainfall patterns began replacing the lost water.

The most recent drawdown happened this past June, when only part of the lake emptied, Aresco said. The topography of the lake bottom prevents the northern end from being affected as much.

“This part of the lake . . . refilled in early 2001, and it hasn’t been dry since then,” he said. “It’s actually separated from the other part of the lake by a bottom ridge. There is bottom topography that when the lake gets low enough it separates out into different sub-basins … but this particular sub basin is controlled by Lime Sink, and Lime Sink is a much more inactive sinkhole than Porter Sink.”

Still, the lake is only 6 feet deep in places.

“The water level of the lake has not returned to anywhere near the average level. It is not so much a function of the sinkhole but of a historic drought,” Van Dyke said. “We are experiencing a deficit of the equivalent of one year’s worth of rainfall. Picture a bathtub with a slow leak. If you turn off the faucet, the bathtub will soon be empty.”

Natural drawdowns may be bad for the wildlife that get sucked into the sinkhole, and for people who like to have water in their fishin’ hole, but they’re actually a healthy thing. Invasive plants die off, the sediment dries up and compacts, and native plant species start to grow again. And that’s good for fish. Aresco said that when the lake started to fill back up, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission re-stocked it with 400,000 fingerling bass to replace the fish population that went “down the drain.”

Aresco said some of those new fish were lost during a drawdown in 2003, but despite that the fishery is making a comeback.

“You talk to people who fish with small boats, they are doing great. Most people like to fish at Lime Sink, (it’s) a big deep open water area, so the local people who fish Lake Jackson are enjoying the fishing out here,” he said.


Striking A Future Balance

Realtor Jason Naumann of the Naumann Group is optimistic about the role the North Monroe Street corridor will play in the future.

“I love the area. We have sold residential subdivisions in that corridor and they have been in more of the affordable housing range and they are extremely successful,” he said. “The first one we sold was Tower Oaks, the second one we’re doing is called River Oaks, and it’s 155 single-family homes. There is such a demand for them, but it’s a good area, and you got all the infrastructure.”

Fred Goodrow said the city will grow in many different directions, even toward the north, which some experts say won’t see as much residential growth because many old plantations are held as conservation lands. However, a growing population has to go somewhere, Goodrow said.

“Eventually Tallahassee is going to reach in all directions a lot further than it does right now,” he said.

“We have a tremendous population that’s expected to continue to move into this area and reside here over the next 20 years. We’re looking at doubling the population in 50 years. Another 100,000 or so in the next 20. We’re going to move in a lot of directions. The real question is about which direction we move in the future, the trending. The trends of the past 20 years have been toward the northeast. But whether those trends continue or not, or even the northern direction continues or not, has a lot to do with the capacity of the roads.”

“I just think it’s inevitable that Tallahassee will grow whatever direction it can,” said Jason Naumann. “We have projects on the south and east; they’re not easy to get approved, but Tallahassee is such a small area, all four corridors of Tallahassee continue to grow, every one of them have new developments.”

John Dailey, who is new to the role of county commissioner, said that when it comes to managing this future growth, “the devil’s in the details.”

“Which is all the more reason why we need to think about our business and economic development on more of a regional basis,” he said. “We need to start thinking in more regional terms because it does affect our neighboring counties.

“We work hard to provide the proper infrastructure to our roads,” Dailey said. “It’s important we stay on top of projects to make sure they are done on time and on budget. Making sure we have the appropriate infrastructure is extremely important, not only to our neighborhoods for traffic congestion but for the success of business on the northwest side of town.”


‘Significant Interest’ Remains for Growth

By Jason Dehart

There continues to be significant interest in residential development along the North Monroe Street corridor north of Interstate 10, said Tallahassee Mayor John Marks.

The Mayor’s Office said planning-department data show five residential developments at various stages of the approval process in the vicinity of the area in question.

Those projects represent a total of 278 acres and include the construction of 106 townhomes, 342 apartment units and 659 single-family homes.

“It should be noted that the majority of these projects are still at the preliminary review stage,” Marks said.

However, he noted, “the current slowdown in the housing market may result in some of these projects being delayed or canceled.”

Nevertheless, the North Monroe corridor remains attractive because of its easy interstate access and proximity to downtown.

“There are several commercial projects planned,” Marks said.

Two hotels with a total of 148 rooms have submitted development plans for the area. A 35,000-square-foot CVS drugstore/pharmacy has been slated for construction in the Circle Oak Shopping Center. And Fringe Benefits and Taxolog Inc. have their business offices in the area.

“This area will continue to be attractive for residential development, and that residential growth will support continued commercial growth along the corridor,” the mayor said.

North Monroe Street north of I-10 lies outside of the Tallahassee city limits and within unincorporated Leon County.

Officials said that the only exceptions to this are a very small area directly north of I-10 on both sides of the road, and another on the west side of Crowder Road. In each of these exceptions, fewer than 10 parcels are within the city limits and adjacent to North Monroe Street.


Ecopassage is Making Progress

By Jason Dehart

Lake pollution and drought are bad enough, but ecologist Matt Aresco said there’s another problem plaguing Lake Jackson. During times of low water, many animal species try to migrate back and forth across U.S. 27. It proves to be a dangerous gamble for otters, alligators and even birds. Turtles seem to be especially vulnerable.

“In February 2000, I discovered a dramatic animal mortality problem on a one-mile stretch of U.S. 27,” said Aresco, whose “big interest” is in freshwater turtle and gopher tortoise conservation. “I found 90 dead turtles in the northbound shoulder. Being an ecologist, that disturbed me.”

A wide variety of animals were being killed as they tried to migrate from the dry lake bed east of the highway to the haven of Little Lake Jackson on the west side of U.S. 27. The solution was to set up a barrier that directed migrating animals to a 12-foot culvert connecting the two water bodies. Aresco said he convinced DOT to donate a temporary silt fence that he built on the east side of the highway in five days.

“(The fence) came just in time. There was a tremendous migration in 2000,” he said. “During the peak migration I was out there 10 or 12 hours a day. I then put a up a fence on the west side. I moved thousands of turtles in the return migration.”

In all, he said 9,300 turtles tried to cross the road, of which 600 or 700 were killed. The rest were saved by the fence.

“It reduced it to one percent of what the mortality rate was,” he said.

But the silt fence was only temporary, and Aresco – along with other members of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage Alliance – lobbies for a permanent “ecopassage” under the highway. The DOT is currently in the design phase of the project, he said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic the ecopassage will be built,” Aresco said. “We don’t expect the city/county to pay for it. There is federal money available.”

 Economic Development OutlookMany Alternatives Exist in the Area Past I-10

By Dr. Bill Law

Because of its easy access to downtown, the area served by U.S. Highway 27 north of Interstate 10 is alluring to homebuyers – especially since it hasn’t seen the same rise in property values as northeast Tallahassee and other parts of town. Rather than the massive projects under way in other economic corridors, this one offers a different sort of growth – practical alternatives for families, travelers and shoppers.

Major interest here is mainly residential, with retail growing as well. Of course, Fringe Benefits Management Company makes its home in this corridor, and so does the lab that manufactures the anti-cancer drug Taxol. By and large, however, the biggest initiatives involve townhouses, apartments, single-family homes and hotels.

Currently, two hotels representing 148 rooms are slated for the area overlooking I-10 near Fringe Benefits. A combined 278 acres is dedicated to five residential projects, including 106 townhouses, 342 apartment units and 659 single-family homes.

The upcoming hotels and the 35,000-square-foot CVS Pharmacy planned for Circle Oaks Shopping Center are certain to provide jobs and draw tourists. And many area residents do their shopping at Tallahassee Mall and other businesses on North Monroe. As the area continues to draw homebuyers, retailers will profit too. Tourists find the corridor a perfect vantage point from which to see the sights.

We hope, as I-10 is widened to six lanes and the interchanges improved at exits on Tallahassee’s north side, that this corridor will attract more travelers as a result.

One cautionary note: The residential projects are in various stages of development, so the recent slowdown in the housing market could affect them. However, because of its lower land costs, this economic corridor is poised to offer both workforce opportunities and moderately priced housing – both much needed in our communities.



1000-1500s Apalachee Indians, Florida’s largest and most important native population, develop a mound-building culture on the shores of Lake Jackson, a 4,000-acre sinkhole lake. For reasons unknown, in the 1500s they move south, closer to what later became downtown Tallahassee. (Source: “Tallahassee: Favored Land,” Revised and Expanded Edition, by Mary Louise Ellis, William Warren Rogers and Joan Perry Morris, 1999.)

1800s Col. Robert Butler, a leading planter of the early 1800s and an Andrew Jackson man, has a 900-acre cotton plantation on Lake Jackson.

1927 U.S. Highway 27, which today runs from Miami north to Fort Wayne, Ind., makes its appearance. In 1949, its southern terminus was Tallahassee.

1940s The Clark family establishes a motel on North Monroe Street and another one on the Quincy Highway. Both boast “50 modern brick cottages, radios, telephones, fans and garages.” (Source: “Tallahassee: Favored Land”)

1965 U.S. Highway 27 is rebuilt from a two-lane road to a four-lane highway.

1970s Lake Jackson begins a 30-year decline with the introduction of Interstate 10 and other development to its 27,000-acre closed drainage basin.

1970-1971 The Tallahassee Mall is established on land owned by the Stiles family.

1972 Lake Jackson Mounds opens as a state park.

1974 The state of Florida designates Lake Jackson as an “Aquatic Preserve.”

1997-1998 The Friends of Lake Jackson organization is founded.

1990-1991 A special zoning code, “LP-Lake Protection Zoning District,” is established to limit commercial and residential densities in the vicinity of the sensitive lake.

1999 Lake Jackson experiences a dramatic water-level drawdown at Porter Sink.

2000 The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) provides materials for a temporary fence alongside U.S. Highway 27 to help safely direct turtles and other wildlife trying to cross the highway between Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson.

2004 The Leon County Commission votes 4-3 to increase the size of Summerfield, a proposed development slated to be built adjacent to Little Lake Jackson on North Monroe Street. (Source: Lake Jackson Protection Alliance)

2006 Investors look to purchase and improve the 280-acre Tallahassee Commercial Airport on U.S. Highway 27.

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