City review board rejects St. Petersburg apartment tower expansion

ST. PETERSBURG — Developers of a $15 million, 18-story downtown apartment tower project hit another roadblock this month when a city panel rejected the unanimously its request for expansion.

Formerly known as Bezu, and before that, the Blue Lotus, the Fourth Avenue N. project has been mired in dispute since it was introduced in 2017. Opponents of the adjacent historic Flori de Leon have criticized the tower, now named Julia, as too large and modern for its surroundings.

The developers had previously gone before members of the city council in June with the same demand for expansion. New plans would add a carousel parking structure and increase Julia’s residence count from 20 to 36, and these would be rentals instead of condominium units. The height and footprint of the building would remain the same.

Acting as a community redevelopment agency, council members approved the changes, despite impassioned public comments from neighbors that the Julia was incompatible with the seven-story Mediterranean-style Flori.

Related: St. Petersburg apartment tower wins approval despite simmering dispute

But at the Development Review Commission meeting on July 6, members came to terms with worried neighbors. The commissioners, most of whom have a background in architecture, engineering and land-use planning, deemed the tower too large for its site and incompatible in scale and style with its historic surroundings.

The developers needed both commission and agency approval for the new plans to go ahead. They appealed the commission’s decision last week, according to Elizabeth Abernethy, director of planning and development services. The appeal is expected to go to city council on August 18, according to Craig Taraszki, an attorney representing developer Driven Ziggy LLC.

The city’s site plan approval for a 20-unit building also expires in October, Abernethy said, but developers can apply for an extension.

At the July 6 meeting Taraszki noted the prior approvals of members of the city council and the commission for the project.

“Commissioners expressed disdain for the aesthetics, height and massing of the building, but they are unchanged from what was previously approved,” Taraszki wrote in an email Friday. He argued that nothing presented at the meeting provided “rational grounds to upset pre-approvals” by the commission or council members.

But some commission members said they regretted their 2018 decision to accept a scaled-down version of the tower and would not support an extension to the unit now.

“They’re trying to fit too much into a small bag,” Commissioner Charles Flynt said, describing the site as “dysfunctional”.

Commissioner Matt Walker, who previously supported the 20-unit tower, said he “almost immediately began to question” his vote.

“Now I walk down Fourth Avenue N. every day to work and walk past this vacant lot,” he said at the meeting. “And I’ve tried to visualize this building on this ground, and I can’t physically do it. I’ve regretted being that fourth vote more times in the last four years than I ever could. Express.

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“I wish we could beat it all (today),” added commissioner Darren Stowe.

When it came time to vote, one by one, each commissioner said no. Flori residents in the audience erupted in applause. One raised her fist in the air.

Flori resident William Herrmann, who has spearheaded opposition to the proposed development since 2017, called the moment “incredible”.

“We were able to show the flaws,” he said. “And seven professionals said, ‘This thing doesn’t work. “”

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