Wrong building, wrong location

Published May 16, 2007

Most St. Petersburg residents have viewed their modern downtown skyline with pride and enthusiasm. Condos and a new office building rise to lofty heights in the downtown core, while on the fringe between downtown and the city's incomparable neighborhoods, the scale of new construction has been appropriately modest. At least until now.

A proposed development that would pack a 260-room Westin Hotel and a 111-unit condo into a 33-story tower just across the street from the Old Northeast neighborhood would be as out of place as a sequoia in an orange grove. If allowed, such abuse of restraint and good taste could put public support for future development decisions in jeopardy.

The building has more stories than the Bank of America tower. And that isn't the most shocking part of this proposal, which should draw plenty of public comment from opponents at today's meeting of the Environmental Development Commission, commonly called the EDC. With its height and bulk, the building would be the most densely packed development allowed in the city over the past seven years. By far.

To get an idea of how much would be squeezed onto less than an acre at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue N and First Street, compare it with the recently completed Parkshore Plaza condo on Beach Drive. That project rises 29 stories and takes up half a city block (including its three-story base). Yet the Parkshore is less than a third as dense, measured by "floor area ratio, " as the proposed Westin.

A city staff report recommends approval of the project, though that analysis was based only on the developer - Fuel Group International - meeting the technical requirements of the city's outdated development regulations. The report also raises some serious concerns.

With their "sheer height and massing, " the six stories of blank-walled garage "might feel oppressive to pedestrians, " the report says. Even then, increased traffic generated by the project could add to a weekend parking problem that the report calls already "unbearable."

Yet the most compelling reason for this project to be rejected by the EDC is this: New development regulations that reflect the current wants and needs of city residents and officials are only a few months from being in place, and those regulations would flatly reject the Westin project.

As the report noted, "this building, unfortunately, is not consistent with the community's vision of this location. It is difficult for the administration to embrace a project that so excessively counters the community's visioning process undertaken over the past five years."

Well said, and reason enough for the EDC to send the plan back to the drawing board. While the developer skillfully manipulated existing regulations to their fullest, and then some, it has fallen short on other legal requirements. The proposed project is not in harmony with the site or its surroundings; it is not compatible with other properties in the neighborhood; it would have a detrimental impact on nearby residential and commercial property, particularly in its scale and mass.

Those are all legal justifications for the EDC to reject this project, or failing that, for the City Council to override the panel. Another new, attractive hotel could be an asset in downtown St. Petersburg, but not in that spot and at that height and density.

City officials can't afford to ignore legitimate public concern about a project that is so far out of touch with acceptable standards of development.