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Revisions don't quite satisfy would-be neighbors

Developers of the planned Hilton Hotel will take their request to City Council on Thursday.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

SOHO -- More than two months of debating and revising plans for a proposed Hilton hotel have boiled down to this: Neighbors don't want it. Period.

"There's really nothing we can do that would be satisfactory to them," lamented developer Jeff Long after a meeting with residents Monday night.

Now it's up to the City Council.

The council is scheduled to act Thursday on a request to change the land use at 1301 S Howard Ave. to allow the Hilton Homestead Suites. Both sides expect a fight to the finish.

"Once we lose the land-use designation we have very little leverage or protection for our 100-year-old neighborhood," said resident Chris Eakle.

Cox and Long Properties of Atlanta has proposed turning the 1301 SoHo apartment complex into a 70- to 80-room hotel with apartment-like rooms designed for long-term guests.

People who live nearby argue the hotel would disrupt their residential neighborhood and eliminate their buffer from businesses along Howard. They don't want hotel traffic on Alabama Avenue, which abuts their back yards.

Developers say the hotel would complement the area and increase property values. Business guests would visit for several days at a time and dine at the many restaurants along Howard, including Bern's Steak House across the street.

"It's easy to paint us as the villains, but we're really bringing in a use that would be compatible to the area," Long said.

The developers initially proposed converting the entire apartment complex into the hotel but scaled back the plan to try to appease neighbors. Under the revised proposal, the units in the back would stay residential, either for apartments or townhomes, and only the units between Howard and Alabama would become the hotel.

Residents said Monday they appreciated the concession but said it didn't change their minds. The meeting marked the third between the developers, their representatives and area homeowners. Each attracted about 10 residents, including several from adjacent Moody Avenue who say they are "unanimously opposed."

John Dingfelder, a candidate for the City Council district covering SoHo and most of South Tampa, said he came to find out more about the plan. Residents immediately asked his opinion.

A member of Tampa's Variance Review Board, Dingfelder had concerns about creating another "party central" during special events, such as last weekend's annual Gasparilla Parade.

"From what I can see . . . I think your project is incompatible and inconsistent with the surrounding neighborhood," he said.

Jim Burt, who lives in nearby New Suburb Beautiful, offered the single nod of approval. "I think it would be a good thing for the neighborhood," he said. "My mother-in-law could stay there."

The owner of the site, Russ Versaggi, said that no matter what happens with the hotel plan, he will eventually sell the property. The apartment complex isn't making the same money as it did a few years ago and the taxes and insurance costs are too high.

When asked, he said he hasn't considered selling to a residential developer for townhomes or condos but may do so in the future. At one point, the city talked about building a public parking garage but never pursued it.

The land-use question is set to go to the council at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or .

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