TAMPA — A major battle is forming over the future of the Stovall-Lee House, a more than 100-year-old mansion located on Bayshore Boulevard.
On one side is Blake Casper, a wealthy entrepreneur with visions of creating a $20-million private membership club that he hopes will become Tampa’s version of the famed Aspen Institute in Colorado.
On the other are energized neighborhood home owners who are worried about noise, traffic and feared destruction of the quiet South Tampa ambiance they now enjoy.
Sometime in April (the date is not yet set), the Tampa City Council will consider Casper’s request for Planned Development rezoning, including variances allowing the serving of alcoholic beverages and overnight member lodging in five proposed bedroom suites.
"My vision is that the Stovall-Lee property will become a cultural social gathering place where people can enjoy fine dining opportunities and enriching events," said Casper, the CEO of a company that owns more than 50 McDonald’s restaurants around the Tampa Bay area
He says the club’s membership will be limited, and that required valet parking will force patrons to use Bayshore Boulevard for both ingress and egress.
Planned 25-foot wide landscape buffers and property-line walls will shelter adjacent homes and no amplified sound will be allowed, according to Casper.
"He keeps saying ‘trust me,’ but his assurances are unenforceable. It is not a good thing for us," counters Zhenya Nichols whose home — and bedroom windows — border the Stovall House property.
She and her husband, Robert, are organizing other Bayshore neighborhood homeowners to fight the project.
So far, they have collected more than 500 signatures from area residents, created a Facebook page, and promoted a letter-writing campaign to city council members.
Signs are sprouting on lawns throughout the neighborhood calling on the city to "keep Bayshore Beautiful and our Children Safe; Say NO to the Stovall Project."
So far, the official neighborhood association, Bayshore Beautiful, is not taking a formal stand on the issue, but is posting relevant materials on its website "to assist residents in making an informed decision."
At least one resident, Norman Cannella Jr., whose property faces the Stovall-Lee driveway on Coachman Ave., likes the project.
"I don’t see how this is going to make Bayshore or the neighborhood less safe," Cannella says. "People are taking this as a huge negative. It’s almost like a cult movement in how people are reacting to this."
Instead, he focuses his ire on high-rise condominiums that continue to rise along the waterfront boulevard increasing traffic far more than Casper’s Stovall-Lee club project.
"There will be a limited number of members and they are the type to be more on the responsible side," Cannella insists.
According to the Nichols, Cannella’s support for Casper’s projects represents only about 10 percent of the neighborhood with the greater majority against.
Aside from noise and potential increased traffic on narrow residential streets, the Nichols, whose house is now valued at more than $1 million, are worried about their — and their neighbors’ — property values.
"The people in the city zoning department told us the council will not care so much about our property values as about whether the project fits in with the city’s comprehensive plan. We have to have objective arguments," says Robert Nichols.
He and his neighbors are planning to attend the city council hearing "in force" to make a "very strong" presentation against the project.
Meanwhile, Casper is scheduled to close on his $9.5-million purchase of the Stovall property next month, a sale he says is not contingent on a successful rezoning.
"I don’t have a Plan B yet," Casper admits when asked what he plans for the property if his project is rejected.
His Plan A is well under way and will take up to two years to complete, according to Brad Cooke, whose architectural firm, Practice, is designing the project.
If approved by the city, the project will include a new pavilion for private dining, events and five guest suites; a new conservatory that would serve as the main dining space; an "elegant" English-style garden and relocated greenhouse; parking for about 90 vehicles; and, of course, a renovated main house that will be used primarily for meetings and lounging.
The 2.6-acre Stovall-Lee site is the largest residential property along the section of Bayshore Boulevard north of Gandy Boulevard.
The Georgian-Colonial style home was built in 1909 and named for Wallace Stovall, the founding publisher of the Tampa Tribune.
"Our priority is to preserve and honor the existing house as a showcase for Tampa," Cooke says.
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at [email protected]