Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

St. Petersburg eyes zoning changes after explosion of large homes

ST. PETERSBURG — Drive through Snell Isle, the Old Northeast or other areas near downtown St. Petersburg, and it's hard to ignore the amount of residential construction.

There is a lot of it.

In the past few years, St. Petersburg has seen an explosion in the number of permits for new single-family homes — 191 last year alone. That's nearly seven times as many as in 2009 during the depths of the recession. And the fact that most of those new houses are gargantuan compared to the ones they replace is prompting a response from residents, who are often outspoken in their views, and city officials, who are considering changes to help the behemoths better fit in.

Snell Isle resident Joyce Otazo, for one, likes the two shotgun-style McMansions that were squeezed onto a neighboring lot where a small duplex once stood. Two more of the slim, million-dollar homes are planned on the same block overlooking the golf course.

"It's going to make the street really beautiful,'' said Otazo, who lives in a neighboring duplex. "I'm happy they're rebuilding St. Pete — it's good for the city, good for property values.''

But at a recent meeting of the Snell Isle Property Owners Association, other residents complained about the leviathans changing the face of their community. There is hardly a block on Snell Isle that doesn't have at least one giant new house; some blocks have been completely transformed in the past three years.

"Some of these homes are just big bozos taking up as much of the lot as they can,'' said Douglas Ellingsworth, the association's past president. His own 1,500-square-foot house is across from four huge new ones fitted like puzzle pieces onto two lots at the corner of Monterey Boulevard and Almedo Way NE.

"I think four homes on two lots is a little too much,'' he said.

City officials say they understand the concerns and are trying to balance the demand for new construction with the desire to maintain the human scale and leafy charm of established neighborhoods.

"Our city was built for retirees,'' said Elizabeth Abernethy, the city's zoning official. "We have a lot of housing stock that's small and just doesn't accommodate today's families and lifestyles. The question we were analyzing is how much has it changed and what the effect is and are there ways to regulate that.''

Abernethy's staff has been reviewing the impact of major zoning changes enacted in 2007. In the intervening decade, St. Petersburg has gone through a housing bust that nearly halted new construction followed by a stunning recovery that fueled a rush to tear down smaller homes — many with less than 1,800 square feet — and build big and bigger.

Since 2007, the city has permitted 932 new houses with a median size of nearly 4,000 square feet in areas zoned "neighborhood suburban" (Snell Isle, Jungle Prada); and 2,315 square feet in areas zoned "neighborhood traditional" (Old Northeast, Euclid-St. Paul, Crescent Lake).

"What we've heard is that houses are big and don't fit in,'' Abernethy said, "and an analysis does show that the average size house has grown over time.''

One upshot: her department is proposing standards to limit the size and bulk of new homes.

One change would establish a maximum "floor area ratio'' — the ratio of building to the area of the lot. Builders could be allowed to exceed the FAR if they made design modifications, such as second-floor setbacks, that minimize the bulky look at street level.

"There are ways through design that you can have a bigger house that doesn't look like a bigger house,'' Abernethy said.

Along with that would be a "building coverage limit'' — restrictions on how much of the lot could be covered by just the house and garage. That's to prevent situations in which so much of a lot's surface is ultimately built on and impervious to rainwater that runs off and causes flooding instead of seeping into the ground.

"If a builder builds a lot of buildings and doesn't leave themselves much room to come back and put in a pool or a deck or patio, we end up with issues later,'' Abernethy said. "We want to set a limit on your building footprint to allow people to have their patio and pool.''

In an analysis of houses built in the past two years, Abernethy's staff found that 16 would be considered too big under the proposed limits. Six of those are in low-lying Snell Isle and Shores Acres.

Contributing to the massive look of some leviathans is the requirement that new construction in floodplains now be elevated 10 feet instead of eight feet. While that lowered the city's flood rating and reduced flood insurance premiums, it means that the bottom levels of many new houses are boring, windowless expanses of concrete.

"We're looking at some type of variation on the bottom part that helps visually bring that mass down and makes it feel not quite as big,'' Abernethy said.

The city is also trying to address complaints that many of the new houses, especially in areas west of Fourth Street N, look too much alike. Tampa-based Domain has built numerous almost identical two-story houses with small porches and stacked stone columns.

"We've worked closely with Domain to have them provide a variety and now they do have a number of different models,'' Abernethy said. "It's not just Domain, there are other builders that have similar products. With our new (proposed) design standards, they have to mix them up architecturally.''

In all, Abernethy's staff has made nearly 60 recommendations for changes and clarifications to the zoning codes. The proposals now go through a series of public hearings by the city's Development Review Commission and City Council, with final adoption expected in May.

In addition to zoning changes, time might also soften the views toward the huge new houses.

"During construction they can be kind of shocking,'' Abernethy said, "but once construction is finished, the landscaping is in and the trucks and port-a-potties are gone, they don't feel as different.''

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

   
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