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Panel drops hurdle to developing key block

The alley bisecting the block bounded by Central and First avenues N between First and Second streets N is vacated.

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The last vacant block in St. Petersburg's downtown area was given the green light for potential development Wednesday when the Environment Development Commission approved vacating an alley.

The alley bisected the block bounded by Central and First avenues N between First and Second streets N.

"The Tropicana Block represents the last major development opportunity within the retail core area of the downtown," said city planner John Hixenbaugh. "This is possibly some of the most valuable property in St. Petersburg. We want to make sure things happen."

Joel Giles, representing the property owner, Fifth by Beach Partners Ltd., argued that unless the alley is vacated, developers would be reluctant to invest significant resources in creating a development plan for the property.

"In a project of this magnitude, a development cannot have this uncertainty prior to investing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's not a risk worth taking," said Giles.

EDC members were reluctant at first to approve the 20-foot alley vacation without knowing what type of development would be proposed, but they were assured by city planners that any plans or permits would have to be approved by the EDC before any construction could begin.

In a related matter, the EDC denied a request by the developers of the Cloisters at 288 Beach Drive NE to install a free-standing sign in the right of way along Beach Drive. City planners successfully argued that such a sign is not allowed by the city's sign ordinance and would set an unwelcome precedent for downtown commercial development.

Each month the EDC meets to consider proposed development projects that require variances or site plan approval, or requests for alley or right-of-way easements. If the requests are not too far out of line with city codes, the EDC will recommend their approval to the City Council, providing the developer includes substantial green space and other changes to improve the appearance of the project.

Among other items considered Wednesday were:

BAYWALK SIGNS: Variances to the city's commercial sign regulations were granted to developers of the BayWalk mixed-use entertainment, retail and office project in the two-block area bounded by First and Third avenues N and First and Second streets. City planners told the EDC the project's comprehensive sign program provides reasonable tenant identification, blends with the architectural design and enhances the economic success of the project. Under the terms of the variances, no signs will be permitted on the residential north side facing Third Avenue N.

ALLEY/STREET VACATIONS: Several alley and street vacations were considered, including: approval of a 10-foot-wide alley vacation between 14th Avenue S and Newton Avenue S west of Fifth Street; denial of an unimproved stretch of 52nd Street N from 36th to 38th avenues.

What is the EDC?

The Environmental Development Commission is a citizens board that meets the first Wednesday of each month to review large development projects. The board reviews and approves site plans and has the power to grant exceptions to city codes for elements of projects that do not conform. Decisions of the commission can be appealed within 10 days to the City Council. After approval, the petitioner has the city's permission to go forward, although further scrutiny may be required by other governing agencies.

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