A plan that could lead to new affordable housing in west St. Petersburg advanced Tuesday with a vote by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners.
Commissioners voted 6-to-1 to change the county land use map to allow multifamily residential development at 635 64th St. S., a site currently occupied by Grace Connection Church.
The vote followed more than an hour of public comment from residents of the Pasadena Bear Creek neighborhood who asked commissioners to reject the plan. Many of the opponents said multifamily development was not compatible with the single family homes in the neighborhood, while others raised concerns about legal issues over the ownership of the church property.
Several commissioners said their vote was not on the merits of the affordable housing project, but on whether to accept a recommendation from Forward Pinellas, the countywide planning agency, to change the county’s land use map.
The project still could face review in the city of St. Petersburg, when the developer offers a site plan that would fill in the details on the project.
“We don’t do site plans here,” said County Commission Chair Dave Eggers. “In this case, in the countywide plan, we have a restricted area of response. There are a lot of concerns we have about it. We’re going to rely on our government partner in St. Petersburg to listen specifically about a site plan and a specific project that comes to them that fits and meets the neighborhood standards.”
Increased housing demand
There’s been years of controversy and debate over the proposal.
Several years ago, the city tried to buy the 4.6-acre property to lease it to a developer to build workforce and affordable housing, but that plan did not advance in part due to neighborhood opposition.
Blue Sky Communities, a Tampa company that develops affordable housing, now has a contract to buy the property, pending changes that would allow the land to be used for multifamily development.
In February 2020, the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission rejected a request from Grace Connection Church to rezone the land. The St. Petersburg City Council overturned that denial and approved the rezoning and related ordinances in August 2020.
A group called PGSP (Pasadena Gulfport St. Petersburg) Neighbors United challenged the city council decision in September 2020 in the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings. An administrative law judge sided with the city and against PGSP in a recommended order in March, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity signed off on that order in April. Forward Pinellas recommended approval of the land use change last month.
Opponents previously have raised concerns about an apartment building, saying increased density would impact the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhood. During Tuesday’s hearing, a new concern emerged, as opponents questioned whether Grace Connection Church is the legal owner of the property.
The city did its due diligence on ownership, said Heather Judd, an assistant city attorney, citing listings with the Pinellas County Property Appraiser and with Sunbiz, the Florida Division of Corporation’s website.
The Forward Pinellas recommendation to county commissioners also cited the StPete2050 visioning initiative, which identified an increasing demand for new development of residential units. Large consolidated lots commonly associated with churches are helping the community address a growing need for more housing, the recommendation said.
A part of the property that borders Bear Creek is in the Coastal High Hazard Area, which is prone to flooding. That part of the property will not be impacted by the land use changes and will retain a low density zoning, Forward Pinellas said.
Blue Sky Community’s mission is to help local governments and nonprofits reach their affordable housing goals, Scott Macdonald, executive vice president of the company, told county commissioners.
“The city of St. Pete and Pinellas County have set lofty goals and they’ve also given developers the tools to reach those goals … Bear Creek Commons is a fine example of an affordable housing community that will help the city and the county reach those goals,” Macdonald said. “We operate all over the state, and in every place that we operate we pledge to create community assets that everyone can be proud of. Part of creating a great community asset is being a good neighbor. In all the places that we operate, we feel that we are and this property would be no different.”