ST. PETERSBURG — New apartments are headed for the Gateway area, and developers say they won't eliminate eagle habitat.
Environmentalists aren't so sure.
The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved the project for 240 homes within 10 three-story apartment buildings despite photos from early this year showing an eagle's nest on the land.
Located near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Roosevelt Boulevard and Interstate 275, it's been a long dormant property with rich development potential.
Beginning in 2004, during the boom years, various parts of the property were approved for townhomes and offices. Applicants came and went, and the property was sold several times, getting new uses along the way. On Nov. 5, 2008, the site was approved for 328 homes and 10,000 square feet of office space.
The new owner, Greystar GP, plans 240 homes within 10 three-story buildings. The property is bisected by a preservation area and the project will encroach into about 55 percent of it. The site's grade must be raised about 5 feet to avoid flooding. Raising the elevation will endanger many of the trees on the site, including oak and pine.
City staffers recommended the plan, saying it is consistent with the city's long-range plan for growth that calls for "high-density, mixed-use development" adjacent to places like Gateway, with its mix of offices and apartments.
On Sept. 7, the Development Review Commission approved the project by a 5-2 vote. David Kandz, of the environmental preservation group St. Petersburg Audubon, objected and appealed to the City Council.
One of his main concerns is that an eagle's nest was photographed on the site in December 2008 and February 2011. While acknowledging that eagles have not been spotted there in subsequent photos, he said federal guidelines protect the site for two breeding seasons. Eagles often come back to the nests, he said, and development would eliminate scarce habitat.
He showed a map of the area north of Gandy Boulevard that showed a lack of parks and green space, quite unlike the city's south side, which is known for its greenery.
"Where are the parks for this area?" Kandz said.
But attorney Don Mastry, who represented Greystar, stressed repeatedly that the city staff had recommended approval. The staff said 2 acres of wetlands will be lost, but contend that will be offset by the creation of more than an acre of wetlands and the enhancement of existing wetlands. Much of the site's vegetation is invasive, such as Brazilian pepper, and would be improved by the project, Mastry said. The eagle's nest was a federal and state issue, and therefore not the province of the city, he said.
Only Bill Dudley voted against the project, but said afterward he had made a mistake and wanted to change his vote. His statement was entered into the record, but because his vote wouldn't change the outcome, he is still officially listed as a "no."
The rest of the council was convinced there would not be environmental damage.
"I think they complied with our codes and regulations," said Jeff Danner.
Developers "covered all bases," said Herb Polson.
Audubon's Kandz said after the vote that he thinks he raised awareness about the lack of parks in the north part of the city.
"It's a decision we can live with," he said. "More important is they know they are failing to create recreation space."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org