The chronicle of the Blue Lotus/Bezu project may finally be over. The proposed condo project planned for 100 4th Ave. N. in downtown St. Petersburg cleared its final hurdle with the city on Thursday, winning approval from the City Council, meeting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
The decision comes after a long and storied process of multiple denials and design iterations. The project went through a combined six public hearings in the Development Review Commission (DRC) and the CRA, and has been the subject of two lawsuits.
Some local leaders have expressed concern that the difficult processes associated with development projects like Bezu could serve as a deterrent for other developers. “We have a code, and as long as a project follows the code we have an obligation to permit that project to go forward,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman during a February City Council meeting on the approval of the recent 21-story mixed use development near Mirror Lake. Kriseman has not spoken publicly on the Bezu/Blue Lotus project specifically.
Thursday’s CRA meeting featured hours of extensive public comment, with 34 cards submitted to speak in front of the body. After much debate, the CRA voted 5-2 in favor of the project. Council members Darden Rice and Steve Kornell voted against the project and Ed Montanari was absent.
The developers of the Blue Lotus/Bezu project proposed the first iteration of the project in November 2017 at 300 feet and 24 stories. That first iteration was denied by the city’s Development Review Commission. An override of the decision failed to pass in the City Council. That denial pushed developers to vastly reduce the height and density of the project. The current iteration of the project reduced the proposed height of the tower to 180 feet and 19 stories, and included a redesign of the base of the building to improve the pedestrian scale and architectural compatibility with the neighboring Flori de Leon apartments.
Despite those changes, dozens of residents of the historic Flori de Leon building, members of Preserve the ‘Burg and residents from other smaller developments within downtown spoke in opposition of the project Thursday, as they have for each iteration. Preserve the ‘Burg’s opposition has been intense and longstanding. The organization came out against the the project’s first iteration, and appealed the Development Review Commission’s approval of the second iteration. In September 2018, Preserve the ‘Burg announced a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg seeking to overturn the DRC’s approval, which they argued was a violation of city code.
Peter Belmont, vice president of Preserve the Burg, argued Thursday that design guidelines for historic development should be applicable to the Bezu/Blue Lotus project, despite city staff’s decision that those guidelines do not apply. Belmont argued that the scale and mass requirements outlined in the historic development code should apply, and that if they did, the building would be considered incompatible with surrounding buildings (i.e. Flori de Leon).
At last month’s Suncoast Tiger Bay Club luncheon on historic preservation and development, Belmont said that while height is an important issue, it is not the key issue. Instead, the city should consider “what we look like on the streetscape, how we mix the old and new, how we have the combination of new development and the best of our past,” he said. “If we can keep the streetscape pedestrian friendly, if we can keep the mix of the old and new, then we’ll have a downtown that we continue to love and that’s what we advocate for.”
Developers of the Bezu/Blue Lotus project argued Thursday that they have done just that. “After each hearing, we always have come up with new designs that hopefully would alleviate the concerns of the community,” said Bezu/Blue Lotus developer Michel Regignano. “Over the last 18 months, we have made huge strides in reducing the footprint of the proposed building both in mass and height. One cannot underestimate the dramatic steps that were undertaken by us from inception until now.
“Development does not occur in a vacuum. At every step in the development plan there are massive amounts of time and resources incorporated into a plan. At every step of the way, we’ve adhered to codes and regulations as witnessed by the constant staff approval given our project.
“We have played by the rules and we ask you to please judge our project according to the regulations of the CRA code. Our project is similar to the most recently approved projects that have come up before council. We absolutely fit within the immediate landscape of existing towers, as well as future approved projects.”
Council members Gina Driscoll and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman agreed. Both voted against the project’s previous iterations, but flipped their votes in favor of the project Thursday.
“When I first saw the new design, I was surprised at how much the developer seemed to take into the consideration the concerns not only of this body but of residents in the area,” said Driscoll. “I was encouraged by the fact that they really listened and made changes that really respect the Flori [de Leon] … What has changed, and in my opinion it has changed dramatically, is how this building relates to what’s around it. Compatibility is part of the criteria and it is very important.”
Driscoll compared the architectural style of the Bezu/Blue Lotus with that of the Ovation building on Beach Drive, which houses Cassis Brasserie on its first floor. She argued that base redesign and setback were central to her “yes” vote.
Council members Rice and Kornell remained in opposition to the project. Rice took specific issue with the difference in architectural styles between the bottom and top portions of the project, saying that the project continued to fall short in design and scale standards.
The Blue Lotus has now cleared its final hurdle with the city, but the outcome of the project is still uncertain, according to Ben Kirby, Kriseman’s communications director. “There was an administrative action today favorable to the developer, but there are still pending legal actions that we cannot comment on,” he said.
Check back with the St. Pete Catalyst for future updates.