The St. Petersburg City Council unanimously approved a plan clearing the way for an affordable housing development in the Pasadena Bear Creek area.
City Council approval came after a nearly five-hour hearing Thursday night. Dozens of neighborhood residents spoke against the development, most of them saying it was not compatible with the character of the area and would damage property values.
“We have proven our properties become neighborhood assets,” said Scott Macdonald, chief financial officer of Blue Sky Communities, the Tampa developer behind the project.
The development would be a four-story apartment building with 85 units for people age 55 and over, said Don Mastry, an attorney at Trenam who represented both Blue Sky Communities and Grace Connection Church. Blue Sky has a contract to buy the 4.6 acres at 635 64th St. S. currently owned by the church.
Housing that’s affordable has been a key priority for Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration. A few years ago, the city tried to buy the Grace Connection Church property, with plans to lease it a developer for workforce and affordable housing. That plan did not advance due to neighborhood opposition.
In February, the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission rejected a request by Blue Sky and Grace Connection Church to rezone the land to allow multifamily housing. The City Council Thursday night overturned that denial and approved the rezoning and several related ordinances. The city staff had recommended the approval.
A group called PGSP [Pasadena Gulfport St. Petersburg] Neighbors United delivered more than 500 postcards to the city opposing the zoning change, and had almost 1,500 signatures on a change.org petition, said Larry Galantis, a spokesman for PGSP.
He told the City Council that the proposed development was incompatible with the city’s comprehensive plan, which he referred to as the city’s “constitution” for responsible growth management.
“The spirit of the comprehensive plan manifests itself the moment you enter a neighborhood and feel its character,” Galantis said. “This character is a major influence on why one would or would not establish roots in any particular neighborhood. It is because of these guidelines … that residents of the PGSP neighborhood choose to call this their home.”
He referred to a section of the plan that says suburban neighborhood characteristics include single-use homes, horizontally oriented architecture, relatively large lots and frontages, and wide residential streets that respond to the needs of automobile travel. A multifamily, four-story building on 64th Street South would be “a square peg in a round hole,” Galantis said.
“For a developer it’s just another deal. However with a stroke of a pen you will change the lives of long-term residents and homeowners,” Galantis said.
The proposed development is relatively isolated from the single family homes that are nearby, separated on the north and west by Bear Creek and trees taller than the planned building, Mastry said. On the east, 64th Street is a divider between the proposed development and existing homes, and there’s a 196-unit mobile home park to the south, Mastry said.
While there was a lot of opposition, there was no substantial evidence that the development is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, he said.
“Everyone says and agrees we need affordable housing but don’t put it near me,” Mastry said. “It does not accomplish anything for us to say we need affordable housing if we’re not willing to take the action to cause it to occur. This is especially true in a city like St. Petersburg which is basically built out.”
Blue Sky, which has four apartment communities in St. Petersburg and others in the Tampa area, plans to own the Pasadena Bear Creek property for the long term, Macdonald said. “Our properties enhance and stabilize neighborhoods,” he said. “There are far more citizens of this city who don’t have a safe and affordable place to call home. We are a solution for them.”
The Pasadena Bear Creek neighborhood currently has some retail and multifamily housing, said City Council member Robert Blackmon, who represents the area.
“It’s a very diverse district and I value that diversity. I view our neighborhoods like I view our entire city. Its diversity is what makes it strong,” Blackmon said. “A new development done right can actually benefit your value and it puts more money on the tax base, which will bring more services to the area.”
Some of the residents who spoke called the area a “food desert,” lacking transportation that would provide easy access to a grocery store. Additional purchasing power in the neighborhood could bring in more food options, Blackmon said.
City Council vice chairman Gina Driscoll said she would work on addressing both transportation issues and food options for the neighborhood. Driscoll cited her own experience when a 55+ apartment complex was built in her neighborhood. The result was a stronger neighborhood, with more people looking out for each other, she said.
Council member Brandi Gabbard said there’s affordable multifamily housing in her neighborhood as well.
“It doesn’t decrease values or bring crime. It increases my [property] value because it increases diversity, access to resources and all the great things about living in an urban community,” Gabbard said.
She cited a 2016 study from real estate tracker Trulia, that found multifamily workforce and affordable housing earmarked for low-income residents had virtually no impact on housing values in most communities.
“If anything they cause property values to increase if they are curing blight,” Gabbard said.
Galantis, the spokesman for the opponents, said overturning the Community Planning and Preservation Commission decision would indicate the commission has no legitimate function and ignoring the public participation would signal that local government was more interested in working with developers than its constituents.
But Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said the City Council is elected to take a strong stance.
“We have to start making bold decisions. We aren’t able to make decisions that please every resident, ever neighborhood, but we know that we need to tackle the area of housing. No, every neighborhood is not going to want affordable housing, or as they call it low-income housing, in their area, but we know that we need to tackle this. Everybody needs a place to stay,” Wheeler-Bowman said.
The city council vote advances the project for review to Forward Pinellas, which will consider a proposed amendment to the countywide future land use plan and rules.