OLDSMAR — For years after Winn-Dixie moved out, the big building at Forest Lakes Boulevard and Tampa Road remained vacant — a dormant opportunity and an eyesore, officials say.
At a City Council meeting last week, developers announced that discount retailer Ross and discount grocer Aldi plan to move into Forest Lakes Plaza, built in the 1980s, and renovate the 88,400-square-foot building's facades and parking lot at 3705 Tampa Road.
But there was one catch: Ross requires a 368-square-foot sign, which is prohibited by city code.
Developer Jim Dunphy, owner of Dunphy Properties, said Ross uses the same sign everywhere else.
"This isn't Any City, U.S.A.," responded Mayor Doug Bevis. "This is Oldsmar."
But after roughly two hours of discussion, and though City Attorney Tom Trask advised against setting the precedent, the City Council voted 4-1 to let Ross have its big sign. The council also approved six other variances requested by the developer, though the sign code variance was the most controversial.
Why the fuss over a sign?
Oldsmar has fought legal battles to limit big signs in the city. In a prominent 2003 case, the Lockridge Outdoor Advertising Agency filed a federal lawsuit in Tampa against Oldsmar, contending the city's sign ordinance was unconstitutional. Lockridge lost.
Since then, signs exceeding 150 square feet have rarely stood in Oldsmar, said planning director Marie Dauphinais.
"I think people will be surprised by how big the Ross sign will be," she said Thursday, "but overall, the renovation of the Forest Lakes Plaza will be positive. The building has been in disrepair for some time, and we've worked closely with the applicant to make sure the finished project looks great."
The Ross sign will be fixed to the storefront, which is set back 600 feet from Tampa Road, Dauphinais said. And the plaza's makeover will be consistent with the city's vision for the Tampa Road corridor: The building will be repainted in earth tones, as is required by code, and the shopping center's entrance and parking lot will be freshly landscaped.
The City Council has identified Tampa Road, a much-traveled link between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as a "major issue" to improve. Officials believe further polishing the corridor will attract more quality businesses. About 55,000 people drive the stretch daily.
After construction plans are approved, renovation on the plaza should begin in two or three months, Dauphinais said.
"At the end of the day, it's going to create a great-looking plaza and more jobs," Bevis said Friday. "It's something the council and the entire community has wanted for a long time."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters or mail to 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100, Clearwater, FL 33755.