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Tampa Bay Innovation Center clears hurdle in St. Pete review

Margie Manning

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A rendering of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, as seen from 4th Street South.

Economic development faced off against nature when a St. Petersburg city commission considered a key part of the development plan for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

The face-off ended in a draw.

The Development Review Commission approved a plan for a 99-space parking lot at the Innovation Center, allowing construction to begin on the project by July, as required by the terms of a federal grant that is funding half of the project cost. However,  the DRC left in place a recommendation from city staff to preserve a cedar tree on the site, despite a request from the Innovation Center planners to remove the tree.

The planned Innovation Center, a two-story, 45,000-square-foot business incubator that will be built at 4th Street South and 11th Avenue South, will provide space for companies primarily focused on Grow Smarter industry sectors, Mike Meidel, Pinellas County Economic Development director, told DRC members. Programs and services at the new facility will include business mentoring and coaching, education, idea validation, strategy development, assistance with access to capital, access to business schools and interns, and standard office solutions. The building will also have a ground floor café that will be open to the public.

The Innovation Center will be an economic development driver, Meidel said.

“By end of the fourth year of operation, 1,265 jobs will be generated and sustained by the project, both direct and indirect, and clients and graduates are expected to generate about $127 million in annual revenue,” Meidel said. “The scale of this facility and quality of it is such that it will attract potential entrepreneurs from around the country.”

The facility is funded in part through a $7.5 million federal grant, with matching funds from Pinellas County. The city of St. Petersburg donated the land for the project.

A special exception was required to build a surface parking lot for the facility because part of the land is zoned for residential use. City development staff recommended the DRC approve the special exception with several conditions for fencing and landscaping.

There are 71 trees on the site, according to an arborist report. Regulations require preserving at least 25 percent of the existing trees. Innovation Center planners said they would preserve more than 28 percent of the trees. 

There are 71 trees on the 2.8 acre property and Innovation Center planners said they would save 28 percent of them.

One tree they don’t want to save is a southern red cedar tree that stands in what would be the middle of the planned parking lot. City staff recommended preserving that tree, unless the arborist recommends removal. Saving the red cedar would require redesigning the parking lot and losing other trees, said Neil Stralow, a planner with VHB, a consulting firm working on the project.

“There’s a large group of live oaks in an open area at the south end of the parking lot that is being preserved at the expense of cedar,” Stralow said.  “In order to get vehicular traffic past the [cedar] tree, there’s going to need to be severe pruning to it. It won’t survive with the severe pruning. So the decision was made to look at the grouping of trees and preserve that in an open space adequate for long-term survivability.”

One DRC member suggested the city arborist likely would agree with the Innovation Center planners and recommend removal of the cedar tree.

The DRC voted unanimously for the special exception allowing the parking lot to be built.

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