In 2001 a developer said he wanted to build a six- to seven-story hotel beside the landmark Pappas Restaurant at the entrance to Tarpon Springs' historic Sponge Docks. Directly across Dodecanese Boulevard and connected by a pedestrian overpass, he planned to build a modern conference center with more hotel rooms, shops and a 600-space, multilevel parking garage.
City commissioners embraced the idea. Redevelopment was still beyond the horizon in most of North Pinellas and the quaint Sponge Docks had needed freshening for a long time. Here was a developer, Tony Markopoulos, eager to bring new business and more tourists to the docks, and city officials were eager to have him. They brought up incentives the city could offer to him even before they had seen details of his plans. What about the 35-foot height restriction on the Pappas property? No problem! The city raised the height limit.
The Markopoulos deal dissolved, but two weeks ago the owners of Pappas Restaurant shut down the eatery and announced they want to tear it down and replace it with a mixed-use project including, potentially, a 75-foot-tall hotel.
How did city commissioners respond this time? They scrambled to institute a 90-day moratorium on 75-foot-tall buildings on the Sponge Docks.
Public officials throughout Pinellas County have learned a lot in the past year or so as they have watched high-rise development sweep the beaches, condominium developers snatch up mobile home parks, and new development threaten historic structures. They've learned redevelopment has its down side.
Tarpon Springs officials have grappled with their own development issues. A majority of city commissioners said their city codes left them no choice but to approve a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River despite substantial public opposition, and to approve a casino boat operation based at the Sponge Docks, though they didn't like the idea.
They don't want to be backed into another corner, especially on the high-visibility Pappas site, so last week a majority voted for the temporary moratorium. They said they want to discuss whether 75 feet is really the right height for the Sponge Docks and make sure their land development code contains enough provisions to protect the area from inappropriate development.
A moratorium, even a temporary one, creates controversy. Already, developers are crying foul. And even the city manager complained that the moratorium should have been instituted a couple of years ago when she first asked for it, rather than now when developers are lined up with their plans.
It would have been a bigger mistake to start reviewing development plans without the framework of a tough code to influence the outcome of projects.
Tarpon Springs' land development code is not sufficiently demanding on the issues of open space, setbacks and building design. That city's officials can look at other communities where new development is occurring and see the problems that need to be avoided: lot line to lot line construction; insufficient view corridors; blocky building design; nonexistent transition zones between tall structures and short ones; and developers' use of open-air "party pavilions" on the roofs of buildings to extend their usable height beyond what codes permit.
Tarpon Springs does not have to fear that redevelopment will pass it by if officials pause for 90 days to study their codes and make changes to preserve the Sponge Docks' unique character.