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Is growth issue really tourist hotels vs. condos?

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published March 28, 2007


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In their frenzy to ban tall buildings, residents in Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach, Belleair and other small cities across Florida might be shooting themselves in the foot, city planners and developers warn.

Tourism, the bread and butter of some communities in Pinellas County, heavily depends on growth based on changing market values, making a moratorium on it impractical, they say. If cities won't allow developers to build up their properties, hoteliers will likely sell out to condominiums. Tourists, who support local businesses and bring in tax revenue, will go elsewhere.

Pro-business leaders have warned this for years, but residents have turned a deaf ear, believing that their government officials have given more consideration to how much money these developers will bring in instead of the consequences growth will have on their small communities.

But as Tampa Bay grows, city leaders, business interests, and residents will have to reconcile their differences and compromise, urban design researchers said. "Height is not a bad thing, but what we have to figure out is where is the middle ground where we can allow different types of masses, different types of buildings, without jeopardizing or adversely impacting conditions that already exist," said Theodore Trent Green, an architecture professor at the University of South Florida Tampa's Center for Community Design and Research.

Residents should focus less on how tall a building is and more on the overall design of the project and the needs of diverse interests in the community, he said. Also, city leaders need to stand up to developers to ensure good development is put on the ground, he said.

Locally, residents and business leaders have been unable to find common ground, partly because residents do not trust developers.

For many of the county's beach communities, residents are opposed to height along their waterfront property because they want to see the beach. They also argue that their cities, many just thin strips along the barrier land that guards Pinellas, are already overcrowded and built out.

In St. Pete Beach, two newly elected commissioners won their offices after arguing that the city could nurture its tourism industry and keep its five-story buildings.

City officials have suggested that the city allow its hotels along a 1-mile strip grow to at least 12 stories, but residents fear that because land in that area can be used for residential and commercial property, developers will just build tall condominiums instead of hotels.

"I think it is a sales pitch to say height and density equal tourism," said Linda Chaney, one of the newly elected commissioners. "Until we can guarantee that what we are promised is what we get, I as a commissioner am not comfortable presenting it to my constituents."

Chaney also points to short hotels in Key West as examples of responsible redevelopment.

"It works in other areas so it may work in our area," she said.

But to city planners, short buildings and more hotels are incompatible goals.

In Treasure Island, where residents voted in measures that limited height, condominium development has steadily increased while the number of hotels has dropped by the hundreds. In 2004, the city lost nearly 300 rooms.

Short hotels do not give hoteliers enough area to build the number of rooms they need to earn a living compared to what they could make if they sold their property to condominium developers, said Karl Holly, community development director for St. Pete Beach.

Even if hoteliers covered every inch of their lot with hotel space and built smaller rooms than normal, a five-story structure would leave little land for amenities such as landscaping and any view of the beach from Gulf Boulevard.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 27, 2007, 22:38:53]


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