Neighbors flexing muscles

You must please more than the city to get things okayed lately.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 5, 2007

The landscape is getting rugged for those who want to build new homes and buildings in the city.

"It's a tenuous time for developers," said Les Porter, whose company, Porter Development, is in the midst of a project to redevelop a block on 66th Street between 13th and 18th avenues N. "The problem is you have to have 100 percent support."

After watching Sembler fight its way through approval of a project at 66th Street and Ninth Avenue N, Porter is taking nothing for granted.

Sembler had to change that project to get approval, and even now it is held up while neighbors are suing the city over the deal. Fights over downtown projects including the proposed Westin hotel, a condo tower where Mansion by the Bay now sits, and the Tropicana block, show Porter that nothing is assured, even if you have city approval, as he does.

"It's become less objective and more subjective," he said. "We play by the rules, but the neighbors just have to say, 'We don't like it.' "

Porter was to take a change in his project before the Environmental Development Commission today but has asked for one-month delay because Julie Weston, the city's director of development services, is on vacation.

Porter had some issues with the city's report on his project and wanted to be sure Weston, who has been involved in conversations with Porter and his neighbors, was around to clear up any discrepancies.

Porter wants to add an apartment building to a new shopping and office complex he has already started. This would be the third version of what is now Shoppes at Royale, a 214,000-square-foot center that will include a new, two-level Publix supermarket.

Earlier versions received neighbors' approval and included condominiums in a taller building, but did not include the Publix.

Now that condos are out of the mix and Porter wants to bring in apartments, neighbors in the Crossroads area are crying foul. Porter says his plan is in keeping with city goals, but neighbors worry it will cause problems.

"We accepted the Publix going in," said Greg Holzwart, president of the Crossroads Neighborhood Association, "but to spring a five-story apartment building on us contradicted what we were told before."

Holzwart said neighbors next to the project worry that apartment residents might get rowdy and disturb the neighborhood. The association does not approve of the balconies on the west side of the apartment building, fearing the possibility of residents throwing items into the neighborhood or making noise that bothers the peaceful enclave.

Porter said the concern is ridiculous. He said high rents will keep out unruly residents and added that there will be 100 feet of space and two rows of trees between the building and the nearest residence.

"If anybody can impact the neighborhood from there," he said, "we ought to take them down the street and have them pitch for the Devil Rays."

Even the Publix caused some heartburn for the neighbors. Some complain that its two stories will make it difficult to shop in, but others worry it will be too busy.

"We were told to expect 5,000 trips a day," Holzwart said. "Our intent is to lessen the impact of that traffic."

Holzwart and his neighbors have asked Porter to close an entrance to the complex from 13th Avenue N. Instead of closing that and driving more traffic onto 18th Avenue N, Porter and the neighbors agreed the 13th driveway would allow only left turns leaving the center toward 66th Street. But that also means Crossroads residents have to drive out to 66th and make two left turns to get into the shopping center. Porter offered to make a pedestrian entrance through the back of the complex, but neighbors said no.

Pushing traffic onto 18th would create a headache for residents of Garden Manor across 66th, who fear cars will cut through their neighborhood to get to Tyrone Boulevard. Garden Manor asked, and Porter has agreed, to close off the eastern intersection of 18th and 66th to prevent that.

Porter said neighbors have a right to make suggestions and requests on a development, but a problem surfaces when that input is counterproductive even for the neighbors.

He said his design follows city rules and its goals of having developments that allow people to live, work and play in one location. His neighbors complain about problems that don't exist, he said, and offer solutions that will make matters worse.

For Holzwart, the issue is personal. He said longtime residents are putting their homes up for sale because they don't want to be near the development. He said neighbors feel powerless against developers and government that would change one of the most intimate parts of their lives.

"We are arguing from an emotional standpoint," he said, "but it's people's homes at stake."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com