A proposed $15 million, 18-story tower that would dwarf the historic Flori de Leon building and its neighbors is causing concern among the residents and the St. Petersburg Development Review Commission.
On Wednesday, the DRC unanimously rejected the approval of a site plan modification in the number of floor area ratio [FAR] bonuses to 5.0 for a planned hi-rise called The Julia, named after one of developer Peter Francis’ daughters. It would be built at the southwest corner of 4th Avenue and 1st Street North in a vacant narrow corner lot west of the historic Flori de Leon apartment building.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d drive past the site, and I’ve tried to visualize that building, and I can’t do it,” DRC member Matt Walker said.
The site was once eyed for the Bezu development, a 24-story condo tower, which the city council denied. It was also previously planned to become the Blue Lotus. It was then modified to become The Julia, with 20 condo units; however, the developer is once again altering the plans to convert the condo units into 36 apartments, or three units per floor.
The Julia, which was approved by the Community Redevelopment Agency, would also have a carousel parking structure rather than a traditional parking garage. The carousel parking is a rotary parking system that allows people to park their vehicle on a platform that then lifts the vehicle. The driver can then retrieve the vehicle with a press of a button. The development team touted the innovative parking method as a solution to eliminating noise and fumes – a concern many nearby residents stressed when the project was initially announced.
However, DRC members said The Julia not only would have an incompatible scale, but they refuted its design, stating the columns seem out-of-place and other architectural elements that were shown in renderings go against the city’s own building criteria.
“I wish we could get rid of the whole thing today, but we can’t,” DRC member Darren Stowe said. “It is way too large, out of character.”
“They are trying to stuff too much stuff into a small bag,” DRC member Charles Flynt commented, regarding the tight configuration. “It’s the wrong building for that site.”
DRC member Todd Reed followed, stating he didn’t want to put his fingerprint of approval on this project.
Former St. Pete City Councilmember for District 4 Darden Rice, who has voted against previous iterations of the project, was one of many public speakers, strongly urging the DRC to vote against the project.
“Getting the sensitive piece [in aligning with the neighborhood] is very important because that’s how we wind up with ugly places,” Rice said. “St. Pete deserves better.”
Other speakers also drew concern about how the new, tall structure could cause a disaster as seen in Surfside, Florida, when in 2021 a 12-story beachfront condominium in the Miami suburb collapsed, resulting in the death of 98 people.
One speaker, who owns a condo by the Surfside site and is also a resident of the Flori de Leon, retraced her account of losing friends in the disaster.
Jeff Farnsworth, the volunteer committee chairman for the Flori de Leon Apartments Inc., said the organization is also gravely concerned that geotechnical changes induced by The Julia’s construction could cause a similar outcome.
“Some people mentioned the Surfside collapse, that was a catastrophe, that was terrible, but the issues and concerns raised about the vibrations and impacts to the Flori is a construction issue that will be handled in permitting,” Craig Taraszki, a partner at the law firm Johnson Pope Bokor Ruppel and Burns LLP, informed the DRC on behalf of his client. “This is not the first urban infill development next to an older building. This happens all over the country, all over the world – there are construction techniques that can be utilized to minimize adverse impacts to the Flori.”
The line of opponents of the project cited additional issues such as the parking structure, describing it may cause a traffic buildup. The vehicular access to the parking garage would be from a one-way ingress driveway from 4th Avenue North and egress from the parking garage would be to 1st Street North.
Taraszki contested that the carousel parking method has been successful in other projects and how the proposed development has evolved through revised versions over the years, including how the developer has moved the pool to the roof to minimize noise and light, and added commercial space to enhance the pedestrian streetscape.
The applicant had also worked with the city’s Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division to ensure the design of the proposed building was compatible with the Flori de Leon.
The group ultimately didn’t find the applicant made significant changes to meet the aesthetic and building criteria and mitigate impacts – therefore, it denied the request, a decision met with a roomful of applause.