Redevelopment furor twists on

Published April 9, 2007

WESTMINSTER SHORES - The Environmental Development Commission stepped into the middle of an ongoing, emotional and legal dispute between a neighborhood and the city over redevelopment of the Westminster Shores retirement community.

For hours Wednesday, dozens of residents protested the latest Westminster Shores plans, arguing that a six-story residential building on the eastern side of the 20.4-acre property would permanently harm the surrounding single-family neighborhood.

A different redevelopment proposal approved in 2005 by the city's Board of Adjustment - and so far successfully fought by area residents - remains an as-yet unresolved court case.

In 2005, Board of Adjustment approval of a complete redevelopment was successfully appealed to Circuit Court by the Bayou Bonita Neighborhood Association.

When the court overturned the Board of Adjustment, the city appealed the decision to the 2nd District Court of Appeal. There has yet to be a ruling in the case.

"This application is fundamentally different," Assistant City Attorney Al Galbraith said as he told the EDC it had the "obligation" to hear the new proposal.

Westminster Shores wants to construct a $19-million, six-story building that would contain 40 new dwelling units and common facilities serving all residents within the property at the end of 57th and 58th avenues S and abutting Little Bayou and Tampa Bay.

The property is already developed with mostly 1950s-era 38 small one-story apartment buildings, two two-story apartment buildings, five single-family homes and a chapel. A 120-bed nursing home was demolished in 2004.

Most of the buildings need to be replaced, according to Westminster officials who say they are deteriorating, and do not meet current FEMA hurricane standards.

The new proposal calls for only one new building instead of six as in the 2005 plan. The proposed density of the retirement complex has also been reduced from 341 units to 239 units - a number the city says is granted by right under the property's zoning.

The proposed new Mediterranean-revival building is located in the northwest corner of the site, immediately adjacent to the surrounding community, but buffered, according to the city, by a row of single-family homes owned by Westminster.

According to design drawings, the new building will have precast stone or brick at lower levels and smooth stucco on the upper levels. Other architectural details include decorative stucco parapets, terra cotta appliques and a tile roof.

However, the apparent attractiveness of the proposed building did not dissuade opposition to the project.

Most of the residents objected to the height of the proposed building, which one resident described as the "Redington Shores syndrome" because it blocked views of the surrounding waterways.

"This will have a devastating effect on our property values. Please do not let Westminster build this monster," said resident Ted Meuche.

Kathy Michaels, president of the nearby Bahama Shores Neighborhood Association, said the building was to "contextually appropriate" for the area.

Some residents criticized Westminster for not "cooperating" to come up with a plan that kept the profile of new buildings to no more than two or three stories.

EDC members were repeatedly asked: "Would you want this to happen to you?"

Larry Williams, a former St. Petersburg council member, also objected to the new building and asked the EDC to "trust my judgment" that it would be an "intrusion" on the neighborhood.

"You can see the level of discontent," said Barbara Heck, president of the Community of Neighborhood Associations. " We ask you to deny this. It is not harmonious with single-family homes and the surrounding bayou."

EDC members, obviously uncomfortable in the face of strenuous opposition, acknowledged that residents were "unhappy" with the project.

"This is a dilemma, but the height of the building is legal," said EDC commissioner William Klein.

In a series of votes, the EDC rejected a request for a parking variance but did approve the site plan incorporating the new six-story building.

Don Mastry, an attorney representing Westminster, argued that if the EDC approved the new building, it effectively would negate the original proposal approved by the Board of Adjustment.

Zoning official John Hixenbaugh predicted this latest proposal will likely be appealed by residents.