Tampa Bay's downtown high-rises bring complaints on blocked views, traffic

In Tampa and St. Petersburg, sweeping vistas are being blocked.
Published October 17 2014
Updated October 18 2014

The NIMBY syndrome — not in my back yard — typically springs from opposition to prisons, power plants and toxic waste dumps.

Now it includes luxury condos and apartments.

In the Tampa Bay area, as in booming city centers all across America, residents are voicing concern, even anger, over planned or anticipated high-end projects that would block their views or increase traffic or both.

In Tampa, the owner of a 15th-floor condo complains he no longer will be able to see the Hillsborough River if a 36-story apartment tower goes up nearby. In St. Petersburg, residents of one luxury high-rise warn that the design of another luxury high-rise could threaten pedestrian and vehicular safety.

And a block away, condo owners who now have unobstructed views from their balconies could one day be looking into other people's boudoirs if developers snatch up a vacant tract next door.

"As more and more people move into cities, there are more and more people who potentially can get offended'' by new construction, notes Ronald Cohn, a Tampa lawyer whose practice includes real estate law.

What demographers call the "re-urbanization'' of America is turning once moribund downtowns like those in Tampa and St. Petersburg into thriving cores of shops, restaurants, museums — and, yes, expensive residences whose occupants would like to preserve the ambiance they enjoyed when they first moved in.

But that is not always possible as developers forge ahead, often with the enthusiastic support of city officials delighted to see projects that will produce more property taxes and spur additional development.

Last year, Tampa's City Council approved plans for the Residences at the Riverwalk, a 400-foot-high tower with 380 apartments on the Hillsborough River near the Straz performing arts center. That prompted a lawsuit from a condo owner at the nearby Skypoint tower who complained that the massive project was out of scale with the rest of the area and would block his "sweeping views'' of the river.

A judge dismissed the case in April, partly on the ground that an obstructed view is not a legally sufficient reason to sue. For Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, it was a welcome signal for "us and the developers to continue forward, reshaping our urban core in the interest of the entire community.''

The city still faces an appeal of its decision in June to approve another developer's request to build a sky bridge linking a proposed 340-unit apartment tower on Harbour Island to the garage where residents would have to park. People already living in the area hired lawyer John Grandoff III, who has expressed serious doubts to the city that "this tortured, off-site parking arrangement will function smoothly at peak hours.''

Traffic worries are also at the fore in a battle over downtown St. Petersburg's newest luxury condo project, the 18-story, 30-unit Bliss.

The slim structure, on Fourth Avenue NE just off Beach Drive, will be shoe-horned onto a piece of land too small to include a regular parking garage. Instead, Bliss is thought to be one of only two condo towers in Florida (the other is in Miami) planning to use elevators to carry cars up to parking spaces on higher floors.

Moreover, the main vehicular access to Bliss will be through an alley also traversed by cars from the much larger Parkshore Plaza condo tower as well as by trucks servicing nearby stores and restaurants.

Nearly three dozen Parkshore residents turned out at a recent meeting of the city's Development Review Commission to criticize Bliss.

They predicted that cars of Bliss residents waiting for the elevators will stack up in the alley, blocking access for others. They warned that the increased traffic caused by Bliss could endanger pedestrians and cyclists who use the alley as a shortcut between Beach Drive and the new Sundial movie, dining and shopping complex.

"It's called an alley but it probably has more traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, than any other alley that size in the city,'' said Bill Ferrari, a board member of the Parkshore Plaza Condominium Association. "Putting what we think is an unproven ingress-egress from a garage elevator could cause a lot of issues from the standpoint of safety.''

Bliss developer Brian Taub downplays the possibility of alley accidents, noting that there has not been a single one reported to police in the past 10 years. He also said a stacking area is being added on Bliss' property so cars will not have to linger in the alley.

"We complied with all the regulations for building standards from the city of St. Petersburg, and we requested no variances,'' Taub said. "Every single high-rise — 11 others, including our neighbor Parkshore — received the same approval we were granted''

Despite the opposition, the review commission approved plans for Bliss, which already has sold 21 of the 30 units at prices ranging from $664,900 to $1.25 million. Parkshore residents say they will continue their fight before the full City Council.

At 204 feet in height, Bliss will have another impact — it will partly block some Parkshore owners' views of the Vinoy hotel and downtown waterfront. And it will totally obscure any glimpse of the water from Rowland Place, a smaller project already sold out and under construction next door.

"We certainly knew something could be built there (on the Bliss site) but we didn't anticipate something of that intensity and that size,'' said Mike Cheezem, whose JMC Communities is developing the six-story, 17-unit Rowland Place. "We share concerns about the alley and the intensity of the development.''

Though Cheezem doesn't plan to join the Parkshore appeal, he said the city needs to revise its building rules to provide for more open space and better "view corridors'' — unimpeded lines of sight in the growing forest of high-rises.

"I think you'll have a lot less concern if a clear set of rules is established and based on good design principles,'' he said.

Cheezem's company itself was the target of NIMBY-ism when it announced plans for the 23-story Florencia in St. Petersburg in the late 1990s, a time when the only downtown high-rise was the venerable Bayfront Tower. Opposition was fierce, with critics charging that the Florencia would wall off the rest of downtown from the city's cherished waterfront.

Cheezem made some tweaks to the plan, and today the Florencia is widely considered an elegant, inviting presence on Beach Drive.

Some condo owners are philosophical about the inevitability of change in areas suddenly so popular as the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Among them is Charlotte Petersen, whose balcony at the four-story Spanish Palms on First Street NE currently has an unobstructed view of a wide, leafy street.

Petersen knows that the vacant lot next door is on the market, for just under $2 million. She knows it already has been approved for a condo tower of at least 13 stories. But she has no plans to move if one is built.

'"I'm going to look into somebody else's bedroom, it's just a matter of time. But I love downtown, I think it's getting better every day. I love that I'm so close to everything.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

   
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