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Neighborhood Report

Hotel plan opponents continue unswayed

Howard Avenue residents remain adamant they don't want any kind of hotel in place of the SoHo Apartments.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2002


Russ Versaggi says one thing is for sure about his apartment complex on S Howard Avenue.

He's going to sell it.

Versaggi, who owns the 1301 SoHo apartments, said several parties have approached him about buying the 72-unit complex. Only one has struck his fancy: a proposal for a Hilton Homestead Suites.

At a meeting about the plan Monday night, Versaggi urged neighbors to give the idea a chance. Other buyers, he warned, might propose something more objectionable, such a restaurant or bar.

"These are good people. They care about the character of the neighborhood," he said. "I think that we need to strongly consider working with them."

Developers and neighbors are at odds over a plan to convert the apartment complex into an 80-suite hotel.

Area homeowners argue the hotel would disrupt their neighborhood and destroy the residential feel. Developers say it would reduce crime and traffic, and increase property values.

The developers, Long & Cox Properties of Atlanta, met with residents twice this month to explain the concept, go over concerns and offer solutions. Both meetings ended in frustration.

"There's no amount of discussion tonight that will change my mind," said Vicki Pollyea.

"You're talking about putting a commercial use in a residential area," said Ron Salzman. "How is it going to benefit my property?"

To open the hotel, the developers need permission from the city to change the land use. The site is currently approved for commercial use along Howard and residential apartments in the back.

Michael English, an urban planner representing the developers, said the change would limit the site to a hotel or apartments. To appease neighbors, they could also add deed restrictions stipulating those uses, he said.

"This is a thoughtful, well-conceived proposition," he told the contentious audience. "Please think about it before rejecting it out of hand."

Developers picked the site based on its neighborhood setting and proximity to jobs, restaurants and attractions. Most of their clients would be in town for downtown companies, Tampa General Hospital or MacDill Air Force Base. The average guest would stay for five nights.

Residents said the issue isn't about the guests or hotel features. Instead, it's about encroaching on a residential community.

"We don't care about your clients. We know you have nice clients. The problem is that you picked the wrong neighborhood," said Karen Crawford.

Developers said the objections lacked merit and stemmed mostly from fear of change. To try to alleviate concerns, they handed out information about the hotel, a list of all police calls to the address and an analysis showing a hotel would create less traffic.

Residents weren't convinced.

If the plan falls through, Versaggi said another developer will buy the complex. The apartments aren't as profitable as they were when he bought them six years ago, and the tenant mix has changed. Young 20-somethings have replaced 30-year-old professionals.

"Someone is going to come along and buy it and it's going to be out of my hands," he said.

Residents said they are willing to take their chances.

"We'll fight the next battle when it comes, but we don't want a hotel," said Nell Abram.

Said Pollyea, "This is the devil we know."

Despite the opposition, developers plan to take their proposal to the City Council on Jan. 9. The Hillsborough's city-county Planning Commission has recommended against the land-use change, but the council has the final say.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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