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Neighbors on fence as hotel shrinks

By PAUL SWIDER
Published July 1, 2007


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Though it's smaller by a third, the Westin hotel proposed for downtown is not yet earning raves from neighbors who urged the denial of its earlier version.

"It's a step in the right direction, but I don't know that lopping off floors addressed all our issues, " said Nicole Durkin, resident of and attorney for the Old Northeast neighborhood that opposed a 33-story building on its border at Fifth Avenue N at First Street.

Developer Fuel Group International had planned to appeal the Environmental Development Commission's denial in May, but instead came back last month with a proposal for a 22-story building.

The EDC will hear that proposal Aug. 1, but Durkin and other neighbors have started to review it to see how they will approach the idea.

Neighbors had objected to what they viewed as too tall and too dense a development in the Tampa developer's plan to build 260 hotel rooms and 111 condominiums in a 387-foot building. The new plan will cut that back dramatically: 285 feet, 22 stories, 154 hotel rooms, 60 condos.

Ron Weaver, the developer's attorney, said the cost is still projected at around $120-million, but the economics of the building have changed. He said the developer could have made more money from the original design, if no external factors had changed, but construction costs, consumer demand and competition all shift and affect a design that now must carry some fixed costs across fewer units.

"This is a major series of concessions, " Weaver said of the changes. "We did have to do some cutting."

The city staff had recommended approval of the original plan but has not yet reviewed the new proposal. The staff is not requiring a study to show the shadows the building would cast on the neighborhood, as it had before. Some neighbors said the building would have blocked the winter sun.

Neighbors' objections now may be more mundane or aesthetic. Durkin said it's too early for a complete appraisal, but her clients are still concerned the building's 292 parking spaces don't include a plan for its employees, meaning workers' cars will spill onto area streets already clogged with residents' cars.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association is also keenly interested, though the building is at the northern edge of that area.

Association president Tim Baker said there may be some design elements the neighbors will request, but he said people recognize there is a limit to what the developer can do to limit impact.

"You can't have 20 rooms in a full-service hotel, " Baker said.

Weaver said a certain density is useful to the community because it can create a center of gravity and bring more of the right kind of business to a downtown that still needs redevelopment.

With the existing Vinoy and a planned Kessler hotel nearby, a full-fledged four-star Westin could make downtown more attractive for business and conference travel and pull dollars off the beaches into the city.

Weaver said he has begun talks with neighbors and has received positive responses. He expects a written response soon from the neighbors' attorneys about next steps.

Durkin said as far as she knows the neighborhood jury is still out. She said she has heard some concerns because relatives of the Fuel Group's principals are connected to Club Fuel, an Ybor City nightclub in the news of late for attracting crime to Tampa's entertainment district. Weaver said there is no cross ownership, but Durkin is concerned nonetheless.

"Just because they have a club with problems in Ybor doesn't mean they'll have them here, but it is certainly reason to pause and consider the operational aspects, " she said. "How have they addressed problems at the Ybor facility?"

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

[Last modified June 30, 2007, 23:20:57]


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