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St. Pete City Council approves storefront plan with a nod to developers’ concerns

Margie Manning

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The St. Petersburg City Council voted Thursday night in favor of a plan intended to protect independent businesses on two downtown streets, over the objections of several major property owners.

The council also agreed to revisit the issue in June, when it will take up a potential amendment that would give the property owners more flexibility on the use of their buildings.

The Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay makes land use and zoning changes on Beach Drive and Central Avenue from the waterfront to 31st Street. It puts limits on large storefronts most often associated with chain businesses.

Approval was a major victory for Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has advocated for versions of the plan for about two years. Initially he proposed a ban against chain stores, then revised the proposal to regulate storefront size and design in an effort to discourage chains.

No other city has enacted a similar ordinance, Kriseman said.

“City staff looked at ordinances from all over the country with the hope being that we wouldn’t have to recreate the wheel, or create the wheel for that matter, but St. Pete is unique. Nothing we saw quite fit this city. So St. Pete did what St. Pete is really good at doing. It’s being innovative and leading and being bold. That’s in the DNA of who this city is,” Kriseman said.

Before last night’s council meeting, city staffers tweaked the plan, to allow for slightly fewer small storefronts — those 20 feet or less in width — and more medium sized ones — from 20 feet to 40 feet in width. The revised plan also clarified design standards, amended parking reductions and added clearer criteria to accommodate unique and unanticipated situations, among other changes.

Larry Feldman, president and CEO, Feldman Equities, speaking at the April 18 City Council meeting

But the plan still falls short, according to Larry Feldman, president and CEO of Feldman Equities, which is the largest owner of office buildings in the city, including First Central Tower at 360 Central Ave. City officials and businesses agree there’s a shortfall of office space in the city, and Feldman said the restrictions in the plan would discourage new office construction.

“All of the tenant space I can go after for a new office deal is going to be heavily restricted and it’s going to hamper new development,” Feldman said. “Let me give you an example of the kind of tenant that would be a to-die-for tenant in downtown St. Petersburg. Apple Computer. Under this new ordinance you could not lease to an Apple Computer. Apple Computer is considered the biggest driver of traffic, bar none, to a mall or a retail center by a multiple of five.”

The plan penalizes property owners, said Jonathan Daou, president of Eastman Equities. Eastman Equities has restored at least a dozen buildings in the Edge District. Daou said all his tenants are locally owned business, some of which would not be allowed to expand under the ordinance.

Scott Sherman, co-founder and managing principal of Tricera Capital, which owns several retail properties on Central Avenue, called the storefront plan “a creative concept,” but also said it needs additional work. “The one missing piece we feel strongly about is some sort of additional variance or flexibility for preserving existing structures.”

Daou and Mack Feldman, vice president at Feldman Equities, asked the city council to delay the plan pending a study by an outside organization, such as the Urban Land Institute, and they each offered to pay for the study.

But most city council members said they didn’t want to wait any longer, although they also were sympathetic to the property owners.

The council voted 6 to 2 to approve the plan as written, and to consider an amendment to the plan in June that would include an exemption for adaptive reuse.

Adaptive reuse is a tool in the city code that encourages the retention of buildings with historic, architectural or cultural value, instead of seeing them underutilized or demolished when it is too difficult to meet current zoning standards.

Council Chair Charlie Gerdes and council members Brandi Gabbard, Steve Kornell, Gina Driscoll, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Amy Foster voted for approval, with council members Ed Montanari and Darden Rice voting no.

Another part of the storefront conservation plan that provides incentives for small businesses and property owners who make physical improvements to their spaces won unanimous council approval last month.

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