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Towers viewed as blessing, curse

A condo plan offers the Channel District an infusion of life, but critics fear being squeezed out.

BABITA PERSAUD
Published January 2, 2004

CHANNEL DISTRICT - For years, residents in the Channel District welcomed developers with open arms, peppering them with statistics about anticipated growth and raving about the area's potential.

"We hold their hands," said Kim Markham, a Channel District pioneer.

That is, until now.

A plan to build a high-rise condominium complex has them worried their neighborhood will become overrun with traffic and lose its artsy, industrial feel. They want short over tall.

Real estate developers Rich Sacchi, Mike McGuinness and Brad Hite have proposed building two, 30-story residential towers joined by a Las Vegas-style swimming pool, with retail space and a health club on the ground level.

Called the Towers of Channelside, it would have 260 units, adding significantly to downtown's lagging residential base.

"We think this location's got everything a resident would want," McGuinness said.

Several residents in the Channel District argue the project would dwarf the existing low-rise warehouse buildings and outprice most artists and others looking for affordable, urban living.

The Channel District Council, a group of residents and businesses representing the area, has opted not to support it, board member Doug Johnson said.

The two sides will present their case Thursday before the City Council. To proceed with the project, developers need a variance to build up to 310 feet and to take a section of Meridian Street.

Residents plan to come out in force. They may wear T-shirts that play off a Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers theme: artists as the hobbits and the developers as ogres.

* * *

In 1996, early pioneers of the Channel District developed a neighborhood plan that called for medium-scale, mixed-use development that promoted urban street life and catered to pedestrians.

The City Council approved the Channel District Design Guidelines, sparking the former industrial area's rebirth.

Today, some 60 artists live or work in the area, mostly in converted warehouses or old businesses. Developers have taken note, and about a dozen residential projects are in various stages of evolution.

To appease residents, some developers have altered plans. A Toronto developer, for example, wanted to build a Miami-style high-rise but, after listening to neighbors, reduced the height.

Then came Sacchi, McGuinness and Hite. All friends. All longtime South Tampa residents.

Sacchi, originally from Rochester, N.Y., came to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida. He's been here 18 years. McGuinness is a fixture on the South Tampa social scene. He is into fitness and dates a Tampa Bay Storm cheerleader.

Together with Hite, they formed The Towers of Channelside LLC, which has its office in Plant City.

Originally, they planned to build on Bayshore Boulevard. Precisely where, they won't say.

Then they researched port developments in other cities, such as Baltimore, discovering that every city has a center of gravity.

In Tampa, they say it's the Channel District, where the streetcar stops, the cruise ships come in and people go for entertainment. And if trade opens up with Cuba, even more port activity.

Their hopes hinge on 2.8-acres near 415 S 12th St., owned by Fogarty Van Lines. Bound by Cumberland Avenue, Meridian and 12th Street, it's across the street from the Channelside entertainment complex and next to the Tampa Port Authority's parking garage.

The developers envision two 30-story towers with one- to three-bedroom units priced at $275,000 to $325,000.

It would have a $1.6-million pool with a 60-foot waterfall in the "valley" of the two towers.

If the council approves the project, they hope to start construction by the end of the year or beginning of 2005.

* * *

Complicating matters is the location. Part of the property is in the Central Business District, which has no height restrictions. The other is not, limiting the height to 60 feet.

At next week's council meeting, the developers will ask to designate the entire site as CD-3, which has unlimited height. They will also ask for a piece of Meridian Street.

"This is an old piece of Meridian, never to be used again," Sacchi said.

Developers and residents have met several times to go over the project and several changes were made.

The developers originally wanted two towers surrounded by a gate and no retail space. But after meeting with residents, they incorporated $20-million worth of changes, including more sidewalks, landscaping and an awning for artists to display their wares. They also added space for a 20,000-square-foot health club, which would be open to the public, and 15,000 square feet for shops and businesses on the street level.

Sacchi and McGuinness say they have the support of 1,000 residents and business owners, including the Florida Aquarium.

"We are all about creating mass in Channelside," said Greg Harris, executive vice president of the Florida Aquarium. "And mass means cruise ship, it is retail, it is residential. Anything that would help Channelside."

As far as the height issue, he said, the aquarium couldn't comment.

"We're not architects," he said. "We are not community planners. We like the fact there are residential projects being built down here."

* * *

Markham and other Channel District residents say the developers want to turn Channel District into another Harbour Island.

"As McDonald's is followed by Burger King and Wendy's, so high-rise buildings are now breeding at the northern edge of Harbour Island," Markham said.

Residents say the towers will drive up prices, making the area unaffordable to artists. They don't want what happened in Ybor City to happen in Channel District.

"For us, this is a crucial juncture," said Markham, who also opposes Byrd Corp.'s plan for a high-rise project with a grocery store across the street.

Even with the council's approval of the Towers, Sacchi and McGuinness must presell 50 to 60 percent of the units to get backing from the bank. If they don't, the project won't get built, McGuinness said.

"Let the public decide."

- Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com

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