DUNEDIN — When Nielsen Media Research moved 1,600 employees out of its 211,000-square-foot office complex on Patricia Avenue, restaurateur Pat Illiano watched the area around it slowly devolve into a "ghost town."
"There's no reason for anyone to drive up Patricia whatsoever," said Illiano, owner of Umberto's of Long Island. "Anything that will go in that place right there is better than what's been there the last eight years."
But not everyone is on board with plans by the property owner, Wells Fargo, to seek a zoning change that might finally attract a buyer for the 23-acre site at 375 Patricia Ave.
The bank approached city commissioners last month to see how they felt about changing the property's light-industrial land use zoning to a category that would accommodate anything from mostly residential to a mixed-use "village" community featuring apartments above offices, boutiques, restaurants and other retail shops.
Under two of four potential layouts, a potential developer would extend Beltrees Street through the site, creating a new east-west thoroughfare that would stretch from Keene Road to Edgewater Drive.
"The impact on us is going to be terrific to our beautiful community, to our property values . . . In fact, it will be trashed," said Susan Cuddon-Fletcher, one of two nearby residents who objected to Wells Fargo's plans.
"Patricia Avenue is not going to handle all this traffic," said her neighbor David E. Thomas Sr., also of the Scotsdale Cluster Condo subdivision. "It's too much development in that particular area."
The comments came during an April 23 city workshop that Wells Fargo used as its first gauge of public receptivity to its plan. Bank consultants will meet with the larger neighborhood May 20 at Dunedin Highland Middle School.
Wells Fargo's design representative and traffic experts say the road extension would actually relieve cut-through traffic that already uses Beltrees and Scotsdale streets to move between Patricia and Keene. Furthermore, said Heidt Design president B. Patrick Gassaway, the new road would showcase existing businesses to motorists who would otherwise never pass by.
"We believe that the site has a great deal of potential to be a catalyst for redevelopment of the entire corridor," Gassaway said.
He said the bank is eager to get neighbors' thoughts on things like building height to help consultants and the city develop loose parameters an eventual developer could use to compile a final mix of businesses for the site.
Commissioner Julie Scales said she was "very glad to see a fresh look being taken at this property."
But she and her colleagues were hesitant to lend full support until they hear more from designers, neighbors and merchants. Commissioners anticipate at least some community resistance.
"We have to be visionaries and leaders and understand it wasn't meant to be empty," Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said. "At one time there was traffic and activity. And we have to get back to getting that done for the benefit of the whole corridor."
"It's really a question of balance," said Commissioner Ron Barnette.
Dunedin development director Greg Rice said city staffers oppose the Beltrees extension, but strongly support the zoning change.
Mike Crawford of the Pinellas Planning Council, and Pinellas County economic development director Mike Meidel urged the city to hold out for a high-wage employer that would bring new money into the area, or at least set aside 10,000 or more square feet within the complex for such a business.
"Now that the economy is coming back," Meidel told commissioners, ". . . I think it has much more potential."
The comments "disappointed" Barnette, who testily questioned how many developers have shown interest.
"You've said all these things about what this property could be," he said. "And yet the evidence tells us the best bet is it's going to be an empty parking lot for the next five years."
If commissioners approve the land use changes, Rice said city staff would want the developer to set aside space that the city could spend a few years trying to fill with a high-wage employer.
"Everybody's going to have to give a little bit. Nobody's going to get 100 percent of what they want," Rice said. "Let's move forward together and we have a better chance."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.