Tall hotel-condo denied

The project meets current zoning, but a city review board calls it out of scale for the area.

Published May 17, 2007

The mass and scale of opposition from downtown-area residents Wednesday convinced the Environmental Development Commission to deny a Tampa developer's plan to build a 33-story building on Fifth Avenue N and First Street.

"They listened very attentively, and they heard us," said Nicole Durkin, a resident of the adjacent Old Northeast neighborhood and the attorney who represented several groups in opposition to a Westin hotel and condominium building that would have been the most dense project approved in the city in years.

A parade of nearly 70 people spent more than three hours telling the commission they thought the building's 260 hotel rooms and 111 condos would bring excess traffic and parking problems to the edge of their residential neighborhoods. They also displayed a picture that showed the proposed 537,000-square-foot project wouldn't be appropriate for a neighborhood because it would even dwarf buildings in the downtown's core.

While the project by Fuel Group International had gained staff approval because it met the letter of the zoning laws, commission members voted 6-1 against it on the grounds it did not uphold the spirit of the city's comprehensive plan and would disrupt the harmony of the area.

"The scale and mass are out of proportion," said chairman David Punzak, who echoed others in saying he liked the project but wished it was in the heart of downtown, not its edge. "I wish it could be a couple 1-irons to the south."

Fuel Group's attorney, Ron Weaver, said he, too, wished the company had property farther south, but his client had bought this property in good faith and expected to be able to exercise legitimate development rights. He said Fuel Group will likely appeal the decision to the City Council, but the city staff said scheduling won't allow that appeal for at least two months.

Weaver also countered neighbors' claims that the developer was trying to sneak in a project under old laws before city land development regulations change later this summer. He said planning on the project started two years ago when the city's new rules were very much in flux.

Durkin conceded from the opening that the project had met code and that's why the staff had approved it. While she urged the commissioners to consider the total effect of such a development, other neighbors took exception to the project being taken seriously at all.

"You rely too much on staff," said Sally Ann Lawson, who owns property across the street from the project. "They're basically clerks. What you have here (in the neighborhood) are experts."

Indeed, among those opposing the project were architect Tim Clemmons, who prepared the comparison drawing and who also is about to complete a condo building next to the site. Also voicing opposition was developer Dan Harvey, who has offered Fuel Group his nearby land that some said would be more suitable for the project.

Neighbors also were upset that the nearly 400-foot-tall building would cast long winter shadows on their homes. A "shadow study," the first the city has ever required of a developer, showed darkness covering areas as much as two blocks north for as long as two hours a day.

Sharon Heal-Eichler was the sole vote in favor of the project. She said she couldn't deny the developer what others nearby had been granted. She also felt concerns were overblown.

"I do not see this as a monstrosity that will destroy the Northeast neighborhood," she said.

Durkin said the quick, decisive vote was a bit of a surprise, based on the commission's history, but that the timing played a part. With the new regulations in reach and this project not addressing the community process that created those laws, it leaned toward the future.

"This is a statement by the EDC," she said, "that we've already decided the vision for the city."