Dense areas call for a smart guy

By Rick Gershman
Published April 20, 2007

"I love Tampa, and I won't represent a project if it's not good for the city."

Steve Michelini, a land-use consultant who recently won exceptions for Cappy's Pizzeria for parking and other matters

Outside this central Tampa community, last month's victory for Cappy's Pizzeria might not sound like much.

The popular pizza joint was permitted to keep providing pies without meeting certain city code standards, like having at least 20 parking spaces.

But to Steve Michelini, the land-use consultant who represented Cappy's owners before the Tampa City Council, the case meant more.

It was an opportunity to drive home a point he has been pushing for a couple of years:

If the city wants to encourage redevelopment in densely built urban areas like this, it needs to overhaul city codes that can become insurmountable obstacles.

Those codes include impact fees and parking and landscaping requirements that projects in some areas of Tampa simply can't meet.

Some city officials agree he has a point.

City Council member John Dingfelder, for one, called Tampa's zoning codes "really archaic."

Areas like Palma Ceia, West Tampa and neighborhoods around South MacDill Avenue, are facing the same issue.

Residents are calling for redevelopment, but codes better suited to suburban areas can hinder the process.

How that development takes shape is being negotiated day after day by people like Michelini, consultants at the forefront of determining the future of Tampa's oldest neighborhoods.

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Before going private, Michelini, 57, was a mover and shaker in the administrations of former Tampa Mayors Bill Poe and Bob Martinez.

"I love Tampa, and I won't represent a project if it's not good for the city," said Michelini, who lives in New Suburb Beautiful.

Working in a world of variance review boards, rezoning petitions and overlay districts might sound humdrum.

But Michelini gets up every day thrilled to go to work. "I'm very happy," he said. "I couldn't have created a better job for myself."

A University of South Florida graduate with a master's in American studies, Michelini rose quickly when he worked for the city and enjoyed helping Tampa grow in size and international stature.

Michelini said he prefers to make reasonable proposals that are good for his clients and appropriate for taxpayers.

Deep-pocketed developers can hire a team of attorneys to negotiate with city staffers and council members over projects.

Michelini, who is not a lawyer, said he works to give smaller companies and landowners just as strong a voice.

It's not every day that a land-use consultant finds himself in agreement with community leaders and council members. Those relationships are often adversarial.

In close to 20 years as a commercial consultant, the former city planner has had his share of scraps with elected officials and neighborhood associations.

Dingfelder has clashed with Michelini, and other developers' representatives, several times. And he contends that "there's nothing that original" about Michelini's call to revise the codes.

But Dingfelder acknowledges the problem, and says it's an issue "for a lot of neighborhoods in the city."

Many of the city's codes were created with larger, undeveloped areas in mind, Dingfelder said, where it's far easier for a new business or development to provide parking, landscaping and other considerations.

The council asked the city staff to provide a report this week addressing the issues Michelini pointed out.

Dingfelder said he's hopeful the council will make numerous improvements in the code over time.

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If a developer is proposing a project in your neighborhood, or changing the use on a property there, Michelini or one of his peers will likely be working to push it through the council.

Whether one considers him an ally or enemy usually depends on the project.

To the 217 Seminole Heights residents who signed a petition on behalf of Cappy's, Michelini led the charge to save an important new aspect of this changing area.

But when Michelini represented the neighborhood's Save-A-Lot grocery years ago, community leader Randy Baron said, it was a different story.

The consultant's successful petition to retain a curb cut for the store funneled cut-through traffic onto neighborhood streets, Baron said.

"Steve is very, very good at what he does - in fact, he's almost too good," said Baron, president of the Old Seminole Heights Homeowners Association.

"His job is to represent his client to the best of his ability, and sometimes that rankles the neighborhood," Baron said. "But when something comes up and Steve Michelini's representing the other side, I know he'll work to come to a fair solution."

Baron said Michelini is "absolutely right" about the need for updated city codes that allow for inner-city redevelopment.

"Steve loves this city. The man really does have a desire to see this city grow in a smart fashion," Baron said. "There really needs to be a change in the way the zoning is handled in those urban corridors."

In Cappy's case, the council agreed to let it rezone as a planned development, which removed the parking requirements.

By doing that, Baron said, "I think the council sent a clear message to the administration that they need to find ways to encourage this kind of redevelopment."

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The Bayshore Gardens area faces issues like those in Seminole Heights, Vicki Pollyea said.

"We're kind of an urban neighborhood down here," said Pollyea, president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association.

"I live two blocks from S Howard Avenue, and there's a very delicate balance between commercial development and residential development," she said. "In general, we have to be much more creative in our zoning."

Pollyea has been through the give-and-take process with Michelini over projects, but in general, she said, "I get along well with Steve."

She appreciates that in recent years, he and other developers' representatives try hard to work out issues with the community before the public hearing process.

"There were years where developers didn't have to work with a neighborhood and didn't have to pay for their impact," she said. And even now, "I do think (developers) get more latitude before the council.

"I do think that their intentions are good - these guys aren't coming in to plunder the neighborhood - but of course they're also trying to make a profit."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.