ST. PETERSBURG — There's a battle being waged over the soul of the city's historic neighborhoods.
Some want to raze and redevelop smaller, traditional homes and replace them with bigger ones. The city needs to attract younger residents with families, they argue, so it needs homes that can accommodate them. The current housing stock falls short of that.
Many want to preserve the charm of their neighborhoods from being invaded by what they call gaudy, boxy McMansions that tower over older, traditional homes.
City Council members heard from both sides late Thursday night, as it considered whether to approve zoning changes designed to limit the size of new homes.
They unanimously voted to tighten the size of houses that can be built in urban neighborhoods closer to downtown, but did not restrict the sizes of new housing in St. Petersburg's more far-flung, suburban areas.
"Builders are coming in and tearing down these homes," City Council member Charlie Gerdes said. "If we allow that to continue, the very character of the neighborhood that was attractive to that builder isn't going to exist anymore.
"I want to make sure we do everything we can to preserve the magic."
More than 30 people lined up to be heard, the vast majority pleading with the council to tighten the restrictions. Most came from the Old Northeast or Historic Kenwood neighborhoods. They lamented that the character of their neighborhoods was being eroded by these new concrete behemoths.
"My heart sinks when I have to turn off Ninth Avenue N to get to my house and I turn past the cluster of cement boxes that crowd the lots they sit on," said Charla "Nanny Kenwood" Cribb, a longtime Kenwood resident and a member of the neighborhood association.
Some speakers painted developers as caring only for profits, not neighborhoods. They would exploit the leeway the city offers for bigger homes without respecting the style and feel of the neighborhoods.
"They come in, they make billions and then they leave," said Old Northeast resident Andrew Muss, "and then we're left to live in a compromised area."
The method that council debated for curbing the size of "McMansions'' was the floor area ratios or "FAR", which is the ratio of the building space to the size of the lot. Public commenters asked council to approve a lower standard than had been proposed.
The proposed FAR was 0.50, which meant new homes could take up no more than 50 percent of the total area of a lot. The new restriction in two zoning areas is 0.40, or 40 percent of the lot, but builders have leeway to add 20 percent to that if they follow certain guidelines. In one area, it is still .50.
Last week, city zoning official Elizabeth Abernethy argued that council should loosen FAR restrictions, to leave for tasteful, larger design options to accommodate growth in the city.
"These homes just don't fit for today's family and lifestyle," Abernethy said at the July 13 council meeting. "We felt (FAR regulation) was an important tool to add to our regulatory toolbox."
But there were others — younger and older residents alike — who came out in droves to try to convince council members that the city could still attract a younger demographic with its historic neighborhoods. Younger people want walkability and a sense of local identity, they said. They want to live somewhere with character and community.
"My husband and I moved from Tampa … from a big-box home," Tracey Boyle said. "I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
"We haven't started a family yet but we plan to, in our 1,200-square-foot house. It's all we need."
A few developers showed up, but none advocated for the continued construction of bigger homes. Instead, they assured City Council members that new development done right can help a neighborhood maintain its character.
"No one is advocating for bad design," said developer James Landers, who also lives in the Old Northeast. "The question is, 'What are we going to do to fix it?' "