St. Petersburg City Council members who voted to approve downtown’s controversial Bezu condominium tower say they felt duty-bound to honor the city’s existing land use policies.
In the fourth public hearing on Bezu since last fall, the eight members of the council were tasked with passing the project’s approval by the Development Review Commission, the final hurdle before construction can begin. The original proposal for the vacant property, at 100 4th Ave. S., was for 28 floors (nearly 300 vertical feet), with 29 luxury units. The DRC and the council rejected that vision for the condo tower, causing developer Michel Reginano to go back to the drawing board.
In the revised plan, Bezu’s height was reduced to 188 feet, and just 20 units. Units in the thin luxury tower are being advertised as between 1,492 and 3,320 square feet, with the penthouse measuring 5,363.
At every turn, the proposal was vociferously opposed, mostly by residents of the historic Flor de Leon apartment complex, which – at seven stories – would be dwarfed by (either version of) Bezu.
Residents of both Flor de Leon and Spanish Palms, the apartment complex on the southern border of the site, complained that the Bezu plan did not include enough “buffer” between it and their buildings.
Last Thursday, council voted 4-4 to allow the project to move forward. During the protracted, emotionally-charged meeting, approximately 30 speakers called Bezu everything from an eyesore to the latest, perhaps inevitable blow to St. Pete’s old-school, small-town charm.
Council member Charles Gerdes said Monday that he stood by his vote to approve. “Our land use ordinances and our comprehensive plan allow for the development of that building,” Gerdes said. “And it’s important to me that property owners, investors and people who are considering doing business in our city know that they can rely on what our ordinances say.”
Bezu, Gerdes stressed, did not require a variance or special exception. “I have a hard time denying somebody who’s interested in investing in our community, and playing by the rules,” he said. “That’s primarily the reason I voted the way I did.”
Gerdes, Ed Montanari, Brandi Gabbard and Amy Foster voted to approve Bezu; the dissenters were Darden Rice, Steve Kornell, Gina Driscoll and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. The 4-4 vote was short of the super majority needed to overturn the DRC’s approval of the “new” Bezu plan.
“For me, it’s not about whether or not I personally like the building, or if I like the design,” Gabbard said Monday. “Or if I feel like that’s the right location for it. It’s more about the developer playing within the system that has been created. And that is why I made my decision.”
Council heard the opposing voices at the meeting, Gabbard said. “I appreciate all of the citizens that came out. I appreciate their passion. I appreciate that people love our city so much that they want to use their voice when they feel strongly about something.
“I have to leave emotion out of it, and I have to be very black and white about what the policy states. And that’s not an easy place to be, whatsoever.”
Next time, she suggested, “Maybe there has to be a conversation about the future, and what we want that to look like. And if more high rises, and more density, are part of that equation. But this vote was not about that.”
That opinion was echoed by Foster, who pointed out that the City’s Vision 2020 plan was a public process, facilitated by an outside consultant. “It helped lay out what future land development regulation was going to look like,” she said. “But when it was created, the city was very different than it is today. So we’ve been talking for years about the need to have a Vision 2050 plan, to help update our land development regulations for smart growth.”
Until then, Foster added, “The current code allows for something like Bezu to be built.”
Public opposition and input are essential parts of the policy-making process, Gerdes stressed. But this wasn’t about policy.
If the plan doesn’t reflect the desires of the community, he said, change the plan.
“We can’t be making case by case analyses of development and buildings when we have a land use code. It either meets the land use code or it doesn’t.”
Gerdes pointed out that there are several other sky-scraping buildings just a block away from the Bezu site. “I agreed with their argument that neighborhood doesn’t mean the entire district, it means two or three blocks around the area. But the fact of the matter was, there were other buildings that were larger.
“The marketplace is telling us this is what people want. If people are buying these units, and renting these units, the marketplace is saying this is what people want.
“I don’t have any problem with re-evaluating our ordinances and deciding if maybe we’ve reached some kind of saturation point. What I do have a problem with is making a case-by-case decision based on whether people like it or not.”
(Council member Ed Montanari was out of town and not available for comment Monday.)