Veto of high-rise may signal a new reality

Refusing a 33-story tower is seen as a test for St. Petersburg's changing development rules.

Published May 18, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first time, developers, residents and city officials saw Wednesday that there is a limit to downtown's skyline creep.

According to city planners, the 33-story proposal from Fuel Group International met current zoning laws. It would add 260 high-end hotel rooms to the northern edge of downtown. And it could have been another sunshine-filled line in the mayor's stock speech about downtown's renaissance.

But somehow it was rejected, by what some residents consider to be a prodevelopment planning commission, by an oh-so-not-close vote of 6-1.

After more than three hours of public debate, said group decided the proposed tower was not "in harmony" with the city.

"Normally for neighborhoods or civic activists to beat a developer, it requires you to run the table. You have to have overwhelming evidence to ever win," said Karl Nurse, a neighborhood advocate who joined nearly 70 people fighting the proposal Wednesday at City Hall.

"Yesterday, members of the board, who typically vote for what a developer wants, had a change of heart."

The developers are not declaring defeat. They could appeal the decision to the City Council, or modify the tower's design and resubmit it to the commission. "We're not going to give up," said attorney Ron Weaver.

But whatever the outcome, there were many reasons for the decision by the Environmental Development Commission:

In some ways, the residents' victory was as much a declaration for hometown rule as it was a condemnation of 300-foot-tall towers.

The new regulations, which are not yet in effect, were crafted after years of public input on an almost address-by-address basis.

The Fuel proposal, which also would have included 111 condos in a 537,000-square-foot building, would not come close to meeting those new rules.

Officially, that doesn't matter.

Unofficially, it weighed on residents' minds.

"I told Ron Weaver (the attorney for Fuel) this was a test case," said Jim Martin, a former City Council member who opposed the development. "I'm glad the EDC made the decision they did. It shows there's a limit."

Fuel has not yet decided its next move. If there is a next step, it will certainly include the argument that the city has no other legal option but to approve the development.

It would take six of the eight members of the City Council to overturn the planning commission's decision.

"If they know the city or community very well, they wouldn't even bother," said Nurse, stating what he believes to be a new political reality. "It's not 1985. We're not begging for Bay Plaza (now BayWalk) anymore. We have a real asset. We need to hold developers to build things that contribute to the vision of our city."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Fast Facts: What's next?
The developer, Fuel Group International, could appeal the denial to the City Council. If it does, city officials said a hearing may not be for two months.