The Kmart yard signs appeared overnight. Red circles with diagonal lines slashed across the words “BIG APARTMENT COMPLEX.” The people of Neptune Beach, I took it, were angry.
For years, the Kmart on Atlantic Boulevard seemed destined for its blighted future. The store was almost always empty, and when there were customers in the checkout line, there were few employees around to check them out. Even before it finally closed in 2016, I’d speculate with my husband, Alex, about what the building could be someday. “What about a movie theater?” Alex suggested. Aside from work and the occasional commitment with a townie friend, movies are about the only thing for which we would willingly cross the ditch.
Eventually, we figured, the Kmart would probably be transformed into yet another apartment complex. Even though the prospect didn’t seem like the best choice for our tiny beach town, the yard signs emphatically stating the opinion to thwart the development made me roll my eyes. Families are being separated at the Mexican-American border, and this is what our community decides to focus on? It just felt wrong to me. But that’s the problem with grassroots movements—they’ll almost always pale in comparison to the magnitude of the rest of the world’s sorrows. When Alex and I would discuss Trump’s daily policy changes during dinner, we took pleasure in dramatically adding, “But the Kmart!”
Alex and I are the youngest on our street of retirees, who are known for their occasional gripes. They’re all thrilled to have landed in Northeast Florida, and they’ll make sure you know it. By the same token, they’ll also let you know when they’re less than thrilled. More yard signs popped up as weeks went by. Alex pulled into the driveway one day and noticed that the neighbor’s ‘lawn décor’ had inched closer to our yard, straddling the property line. He plucked it out of the grass and moved it back closer to her driveway. I giggled at my beloved curmudgeon. “These signs are just so ugly,” he said.
He’s right—the images are hideous in their simplicity, but they sure do get the point across. The organizers had the design printed on T-shirts, front and back, so they could wear them in protest. I knew their campaign was getting advanced when I saw a promoted tweet for the cause. I rolled my eyes for the umpteenth time and kept scrolling.
Later, a postcard landed in our mailbox, encouraging us to attend a community meeting at Fletcher High School on a Wednesday night. The card explained that the Neptune Beach Community Development Board would vote on whether or not to advise the city to accept the proposed plans for the potential complex. Alex read it over my shoulder. “We should go,” he said.
I wanted to cavalierly toss the postcard in the recycling. But we agreed that a big apartment complex’s traffic increase at Atlantic and Third would be a pain in the neck. “Also, there could be a fight during the meeting,” Alex added with wide eyes, “and that would be really funny.”
If binge-watching Parks and Recreation has taught me anything, it’s to never say no to witnessing a fight at a public meeting. I was in.
By the time we got to Fletcher on the big night, the auditorium was packed. Representatives from TriBridge Residential, the developer of the proposed complex, each gave their names and addresses before proceeding with their proposed plans. The 500 Atlantic address, where the blighted Kmart stands, would not only have an apartment complex with ample parking, but a boutique hotel, shops, restaurants and a public nature trail. As the developers spoke, hundreds of Neptune Beach residents waved pieces of paper with one word: “NO.”
One of the developers took the floor, mentioning that he’d lived at the Beaches since moving to Northeast Florida in 2003. He spoke about his love for the area and what made it home. Toward the end of his spiel, though, a woman in the crowd shouted, “He hasn’t given his name or address!”
The man paused. Gulped. Offered his name. Then, he gave his address—Ponte Vedra Beach.
Now, if there’s anything Neptune Beach people despise more than apartment complexes and crossing the ditch, it’s Ponte Vedra. Ponte Vedra, and the types of people who choose to live there, with their street-legal golf carts and their blatant lack of public beach accesses. From that moment on, it was clear that this snooty developer could not care less about our community. The Neptune crowd wasn’t having any of his fake one-of-us attitude. Persistent booing forced the developer to wrap up his presentation early and sit back down among his TriBridge cronies.
In awe, I looked around at the crowd. These were my people. My curmudgeons. I hardly recognized anyone there. I talk a lot about how much I love my town, but rarely engage with the people in it.
While the committee took a break, Alex and I took a stroll down the halls of Fletcher—his alma mater, as well as my father’s. I peeked inside the gymnasium and imagined my dad running suicides during basketball practice, back when his hair was far more pepper than salt. This town is deep in my bones, I realized.
Neptune Beach is an anomaly. Our anomaly. In terms of undeveloped coastal towns in Florida, we may be the last of the Mohicans. So who am I to claim that I love this town, yet roll my eyes at neighbors who work tirelessly to maintain it?
After the recess, the floor was opened for public comment. Our neighbors took the mic in three-minute increments, offering a presentation on density changes the 500 Atlantic development was certain to cause. They all stood before the board to share their love for our quiet little hamlet, as it is right now—without mega-development.
Just before 11 p.m., the board voted. Voted unanimously to deny the proposed development. The thunderous applause was triumphant. Still, as we walked to the car, Alex hung his head low. “I’m disappointed in myself,” he muttered.
I knew what he meant because I felt it, too. It took us both too long to see that our town’s grassroots movement was driven by the most authentic love. My grandfather always told me, “It’s the people that make a place.” That phrase has never resonated more for me than it does now.
I can’t wait to see what our community allows 500 Atlantic to become. I know we’ll make the right choice together.
Writer Winkler (@hurleywink) is a resident of Neptune Beach.