As St. Petersburg considers major changes to its zoning rules, city staffers find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Or, more precisely, a bungalow and a McMansion.
Residents of Historic Kenwood are the latest group to weigh in on the proposed changes, which they say wouldn't do enough to protect their area, known for its cozy bungalows, from being overrun with huge, boxy structures.
But a representative of one major builder says the changes go too far and would hurt the city's efforts to upgrade an aging housing stock that no longer meets the needs of today's families.
As for the city, "we're trying to find that middle ground that is responsive to the kind of house construction that is in demand and that has design guidelines to assure houses won't look like a big box looming over the neighborhood,'' said David Goodwin, St. Petersburg's planning director.
Since the real estate market began to perk up a few years ago, more than 260 large new houses have been built in some of the city's most coveted areas, including Snell Isle and the Old Northeast. Another area joining the trend is Historic Kenwood, which has one of Florida's largest concentrations of 1920s-era Craftsman-style bungalows.
Many of the original houses are less than 1,300 square feet, though, prompting a flurry of new construction that has resulted in big modern homes that look strikingly different from surrounding properties.
"Almost every (older) home has a front porch and interesting details with roof lines, and these big homes just look like giant walls,'' said Brenda Gordon, president of the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association. ''It's not that the neighborhood doesn't want to see new construction, it's just that we want new construction that enhances the neighborhood.''
In response to such concerns, city staffers recommend that new homes take up no more than 50 percent of the total area of a lot — expressed in zoning parlance as a "floor area ratio'' or FAR of 0.50. However, if a builder incorporates design features that make the house look smaller, it is entitled to a bonus allowing it to cover up to 70 percent of the lot.
"With those bonuses, you can get a little bigger house, but you're going to have to do three or four bonus design guidelines so the house doesn't look so big,'' Goodwin said. Those guidelines could include second-story setbacks, for example.
But the local land acquisition manager of David Weekley Homes, the nation's largest private homebuilder and one of the most active builders in St. Petersburg, says limiting the size of new houses is the wrong approach.
"If the FAR restrictions are put in place as proposed, it will have a greatly detrimental effect on the local homebuilding community,'' Martin Frame wrote in an email to city zoning officials. "The diversity of the housing stock and the overall economic potential of the city will be diminished.''
In replacing "functionally obsolescent'' houses with new ones, Frame wrote, developers are improving the energy efficiency and safety of the city's housing. New homes also improve the "aesthetics of the neighborhoods,'' he said, and generate millions of dollars in additional property taxes that can be used for schools, sewers and other necessities.
While acknowledging that some residents have concerns about big houses, Frame said "hundreds if not thousands'' of others endorse the new construction.
"I see the tourists flocking here, and I know many families that want to live here,'' he wrote. "We need the ability to provide housing for these families that want to be here or young couples who want to stay here but can't find a home because the existing housing stock was designed for retirees. The FAR restrictions make it harder for us to provide the housing that the market demands.''
In another email, Frame, who lives in St. Petersburg, summed up his feelings: "I don't think it's the government's business to tell a family what size home they should have.''
Historic Kenwood residents say their main issue with the proposed zoning changes don't involve the size of new houses as much as the style.
Because Kenwood is not on the water, the demand for huge homes is not as great as it is in areas like Snell Isle. As a result, new houses, while big, are less likely to cover over 50 percent of the lot. And that means they might not be big enough to trigger the requirement for design features that make them look more in keeping with the neighborhood.
Developers "are not building 4,000- or 5,000-square-foot houses in neighborhoods like Crescent Heights or Kenwood,'' said Bob Jeffrey, a Kenwood resident. "They're building 2,400 or 2,500 square feet, which is still significantly larger than the bungalow next to it. If the FAR base is not low enough to start kicking in those design features, what happens is that the bonuses will never apply so they will build big, boxy houses.''
Jeffrey, who rehabs older buildings, is on a committee of residents from several St. Petersburg neighborhoods dealing with big-house issues. While committee members are "95 percent happy'' with the proposed changes, he said, they would like to see the FAR limit lowered.
Even without regulatory carrots and sticks, some builders have put up houses that are large but blend in well, notes Gordon, the association president. As evidence, she cites a house in the 2500 block of Fourth Avenue N that replaced a home that burned down.
Although it is nearly 3,000 square feet, the new house "won a St. Pete Preservation award for being compatible in-fill,'' Gordon said. "It is such a pretty home, built to look like the older ones.''
City staffers have met with several neighborhood groups about the proposed changes and will brief the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce on April 26. In addition to Frame, of Weekley Homes, the Pinellas Realtor Organization has expressed concerns that some of the proposals are too restrictive.
Other groups are likely to speak up before the City Council makes a final decision, expected in May.
"Investing in St. Pete homes is a very important activity,'' said Goodwin, the city planner, "and we want to keep that investment coming while making sure those houses that are built are as compatible with the community and neighborhoods as possible.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate