DUNEDIN — The parking lot less than an acre big on the downtown corner of Main Street and Douglas Avenue is dividing residents over their town's future.
To understand why, go back to February, when a three-story mixed-use complex was recommended by city staff, but denied by the City Commission. The reason? It didn't fit Dunedin's design aesthetic. The project was met with intense scrutiny from residents, with more than a dozen people imploring commissioners to kill the project.
Now the developer, Arlis Construction, is trying again with its project the "Courtyard" on Main, this time adjusting the design with feedback from residents and leaders. City staff will review the new proposal, formerly known as the "Plaza," this fall.
Commissioners rejected the project in February because they determined it didn't match its surroundings.
Repeatedly, residents and commissioners came back to the same conclusion: the building wasn't compatible. But determining whether or not a building is "compatible" was a subjective process that was ultimately the job of the City Commission, said Greg Rice, Dunedin's planning and development director.
A critical complication was city code, which aims to foster a comfortable atmosphere for pedestrians, who can feel numbed and diminished by a downtown dominated by taller buildings. By requiring that stories above the second floor be shifted away from the street, the intent is to push the facade far enough back to nurture a physical environment that's easier to relate to on a human scale. The more comfort pedestrians find in this space, the theory goes, the more they'll linger and spend money downtown.
In some cases, however, developers can get a waiver from this "step back" requirement if their buildings embody the architectural elements or styles of adjacent buildings. If they do, and it's deemed sufficient, Rice can ask commissioners for a waiver on behalf of the developer. Rice didn't do so with the Plaza earlier this year, he said, because Arlis Construction had done enough to blend with the surrounding environment, preventing a "canyon-like" effect that can turn off pedestrians. Previous projects that had taken similar steps also didn't get a waiver from the step back, and they were approved.
But Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, the tie-breaking vote, felt that the Plaza did not meet half of the city's design principles, especially for commercial corridors. The project failed 3-2.
"It's just very, very difficult and subjective," Rice said of how compatibility is determined in the approval process.
Over the past few years, Dunedin's downtown has boomed. Rice said the downtown's vacant lots have been transformed into development projects. As a result, the city introduced temporary paid parking last fall to meet growing demand, but because of a strong negative community backlash, the city has been forced to reevaluate.
In the same way residents became polarized on paid parking, the rise in development has prompted a similar response as the city struggles to balance growth and maintaining the character of the city.
Nils Kushta, director of communications for Arlis Construction and a partner on the project, said the team felt and understood the community objections.
"Some people felt like it wouldn't be a good fit," Kushta said. After it failed, the company recruited local architect Jim Graham and collaborated with residents to come up with the Courtyard on Main.
The multi-use complex will have underground parking, retail stores on the first floor and 18 residential units on the second and third. Compared to the previous project, it is 25 percent smaller, has a Mediterranean-style structure and offers more open green space for private and public use.
Graham said the lot's placement in "the heart of the city" meant collaboration between the community and developers would give the best result.
"That's a very important corner in the city of Dunedin," he said. "It needs to be something that meets the feel of the city."
Some believe growth needs to slow down. Others argue development will help a city that was once a ghost town. But The Plaza's rejection allowed community members to come together to create a complex that they could support.
Last year, Harry Steinman decided to form the nonprofit Preserve the Vibe as a way to advocate for residents on social and economic issues. The group highlights proposed projects that don't meet regulations, he said. It has played a role in proposed development in the city, becoming an informal layer of resident approval.
"Development had gotten a little bit fast and loose with the rules and did not reflect what was in Dunedin's comprehensive plan," said Steinman in an interview earlier this month.
He moved to Dunedin about four years ago. His organization held its first meeting last July. He doesn't agree that compatibility standards are subjective because cities are allowed to define compatibility in city code.
"We're not anti-development," Steinman said. "What we are is insisting that everybody obeys the rules."
Residents want development that reflects Dunedin's character, he said. Online, membership of the group has grown to 925.
"I just don't think that anybody has a right to decide what rules should be obeyed and what rules shouldn't be obeyed," he said. "Don't disregard the rules."
But the response from the community worries Gregory Brady, who remembers when downtown struggled to pull in a crowd.
"The only reason that makes me uneasy is because downtown evolved without restriction," said Brady, 52, who owns Salon GW, at 351 Main St. The lot for the proposed Courtyard on Main is across the street.
By hosting festivals and founding the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, he has watched the city become a destination town over the past three decades.
"I have watched this sleepy, really kind of blighted town just rise out of the ashes," said Brady, who began working in downtown when he was 18. "It was our job to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps."