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Hotel might slip in under the wire

A builder takes advantage of current land rules. Many neighbors aren't pleased.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published May 13, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - Resting on the border between downtown and residential Old Northeast, a controversial hotel proposal is defining the border between downtown's underdeveloped past and its popular future.

Tampa developer Fuel Group International is looking to put 260 hotel rooms, 111 condominiums and more than half a million square feet on a 37, 000-square-foot parcel.

Fuel Group is hoping to get approval under current land development regulations that could change next month. If the regulations are approved, the new rules would cut the development in half.

"We're right on the cusp of these new LDRs, " said Nicole Durkin, a lawyer and a resident of the Old Northeast neighborhood who opposes the proposed Westin Hotel. "Everybody recognizes the old rules didn't get us to the long-term place we needed to be. We're not the city that's desperate anymore. Developers are clamoring to be here now."

Fuel Group is pressing ahead with plans for the 33-story hotel on Fifth Avenue N at First Street despite considerable resistance from neighbors. The company will present its proposal Wednesday to the Environmental Development Commission at a meeting set aside solely for this project.

"They're not backing down at all, " said Tim Baker, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, which is also opposing the project. "Nobody's happy with this project."

Fuel Group has gotten an earful from the neighbors and has changed parts of the project. The presentation this week will reveal whether the alterations are enough.

"We worked hard on this design, " said Ron Weaver, attorney for Fuel Group, of a nearly 400-foot building crafted to resemble a sailing ship. "We believe it will be an asset for all the citizens of St. Pete, the crown jewel of the northern downtown."

Weaver admitted that neighbors have opposed the plan but said the company's adjustments are satisfying their concerns. He said he will present dozens of petition signatures from neighbors and business interests who approve of the latest proposal.

Fuel Group has added one floor to the project for more than 100 extra parking spaces to alleviate concerns about cars overrunning the neighborhood, Weaver said. The developer is also improving driveway access for hotel guests, residents and delivery trucks. He said some of the building's amenities might be offered to neighbors at a discount.

"We want it to be their hotel, " Weaver said, contrasting it with the Renaissance Vinoy, which he said is apart from the community. "Ours is a community resource."

Not all in the community see the project that way. A letter of opposition from the Downtown Residents Civic Association calls it "faulty, unsuitable, inappropriate" and an "odious ... circumvention" of the city's new land development regulations.

City staffers have recommended that the EDC approve the project because it meets the strict letter of the law, but the staff report mentions how the project differs from the new regulations and the city's intent for future development. There are repeated references comparing the proposal to what will be allowed once the new regulations are in effect, likely sometime this summer.

The existing base regulations would allow a building with about 111, 000 square feet of floor space, but Fuel Group has added features to receive bonuses for more floor area. With bonuses for open space, landscaping, art and more added together, the developer could be allowed unlimited area and is proposing 537, 000 square feet.

The new regulations would allow a building at that site to have no more than 259, 000 square feet and be no taller than 200 feet.

Baker said it's not the height but the density of the project that is objectionable. He said the argument for tall buildings has always been that a tall, slender building is better than a squat one.

"This one's tall and squat, " he said. "Ain't nothing slender about this at all."

Weaver said the developer has included streetscaping, water features and more than 8, 000 square feet of open space on the lot. He also said there could be a sidewalk cafe along Fifth Avenue to make the facility more friendly to the neighborhood.

"They'll be able to walk a couple of blocks and enjoy discounts on a world-class amenities package, " he said. "We thought it was important to meet not just the letter but the spirit" of the zoning district's rules.

Among the proponents Weaver lists is the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, whose president, Don Shea, wrote a letter of support. Shea said "in the abstract" the development would be positive for the downtown economy but added that he was not in a position to comment on urban design issues affecting its neighbors. He said the thriving area needs the hotel rooms, but he's not sure about the condos.

Unlike many recent pure condo projects, this $60-million development does not depend on presales before building begins. A building without condos would be less dense, neighbors say, and perhaps less of a problem, but they also say simply moving the deal closer to the downtown core could make everyone happy.

"I'd sign a petition of support if this was in the right place, " said Durkin, noting there are abandoned projects selling land downtown. "It's just the wrong place at the wrong time."

Other developers have filed for extensions on their projects in recent months in the hopes that designs would be grandfathered in under the old LDR rules.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

In the thick of it

Some numbers for the proposed Westin Hotel by developer Fuel Group International:

- 33 stories/387 feet

- 260 hotel rooms, 111 condos, 448 parking spaces

- 537, 000 square feet on a 37, 000-square-foot lot equals a floor area ratio, or FAR, of 14.5

Comparable projects in terms of FAR

Progress Energy/Grand Bohemian: 8.3 FAR

Parkshore Plaza: 4

400 Beach Drive: 4

Ovation: 4

Bayway Lofts: 7.7

[Last modified May 12, 2007, 19:24:46]


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