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Two downtown apartment towers head for key Tampa City Council votes tonight

TAMPA — So how much does Mayor Bob Buckhorn want to see a new apartment tower built near the Riverwalk?

Going into tonight's City Council vote, the mayor has taken to Facebook and Twitter to urge supporters to lobby the City Council on the project's behalf. And he took the unusual — maybe unprecedented — step of using social media to push out the council's phone number.

"I think, probably, we have not had a vote this important," Buckhorn said of the decision on the proposed Residences at the Riverwalk.

The vote is scheduled after a public hearing that will start sometime after 6 p.m., and there will likely be a crowd. As of Wednesday, the council had received dozens of calls and e-mails, with supporters outnumbering opponents roughly 3-to-1.

Proposed by Phillip Smith and Greg Minder, the 36-story tower would have 380 apartments, a 620-space parking garage and 10,000 square feet of first-floor shops and restaurants.

"This is exactly the type of development that we are trying foster — high density residential," Buckhorn said. "With that will come more retail and more bars and more restaurants and potentially a grocery store."

But skeptics say the tower is too big, too close to the Hillsborough River and inconsistent with previous city plans for the area. They also fear it would dwarf neighboring cultural institutions — the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children's Museum and the John F. Germany Public Library.

"Why would we throw away 20 years of hard work to go with a vision that's going to tie us to a massive tower, especially in our cultural arts district?" said Jeff Zampitella, president of the Skypoint Condominium Association.

Former Mayor Sandy Freedman, a mentor to Buckhorn when he worked as her special assistant, said the tower project reminds her of the deal that resulted in the construction of the Beer Can building.

Freedman, then the chairwoman of the City Council, likes the cylindrical tower — the NCNB bank building when it opened; now the Rivergate Tower — but said it was a "mistake" for the city not to use the land underneath to provide more public access to the river.

"I think we're doing the short-term fix," said Freedman, who does not plan to attend the council meeting. "I don't think everybody wins in the long run, and I don't think it's a sign of good planning."

Buckhorn said he thinks people can look at a building and have "two very different, firmly held and thought-out" opinions about it, but he said the Residences at the Riverwalk would be more than 200 feet from the river and would not reduce public access to the waterfront.

Nor does he think the height will be the thing that people notice.

"What matters is the pedestrian experience," he said. "What matters is the detail of the building in the first three, four, five floors because that's what people notice."

Moreover, supporters say the project would allow the city to reconfigure the traffic pattern around the Straz Center, making it safer and more sensible.

As proposed, the city would sell the land to the developers for $4 million, at least twice its appraised value.

Money from that sale would then be used to turn both Tyler and Cass streets from one-way streets to two-way streets where traffic moves at slower speeds. Traffic that now goes west on Tyler to cross the Cass Street bridge would be diverted to Cass. Tyler would expected to become more of a street that serves the Straz, the apartment tower, the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel and The Times building.

That "should make it a much safer place for pedestrians," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's top development official.

In addition to reworking the streets, the project will bring a bigger and improved arrival plaza to the Straz Center.

A traffic analysis by Kimley-Horn and Associates concludes that, at most, the tower would generate 317 new trips during the morning peak hour and 412 trips during the afternoon and evening peak hour, which officials do not expect to have a big impact on Tyler or Cass.

"Capacity-wise that's not an issue," McDonaugh said.

Those numbers assume there's a "likelihood that many residents of the high-rise apartment and patrons of the specialty retail and restaurant will use non-automotive travel options," according to the study. That means they're assuming that some people who live in the tower would work downtown and would walk or maybe ride a bike to the office.

While critics have complained that the city has not done its own traffic analysis, it's not the city's practice to do such studies itself.

"We don't feel that the taxpayers should be paying for traffic studies for someone's project," McDonaugh said. Instead, the developer hires a traffic engineering firm to perform the analysis, and the city approves the methodology for the study.

In May, the council postponed voting on the project until tonight after library supporters and Straz Center president Judith Lisi raised concerns about the project.

Since then, developers have offered to:

• Delay construction until May to avoid disrupting the Straz Center's critically important Broadway series.

• Keep an elevated pedestrian bridge from the William F. Poe Parking Garage to the library and the Straz Center.

• Provide business interruption insurance in case construction does hurt the Straz Center.

Developers also have offered the Straz Center an unrestricted $1 million gift.

In response, a majority of Straz Center trustees said in a survey that they favored the tower at its proposed site, which is next to the center and behind the library's annex. The project also has support from the American Institute of Architects, the Friends of the Riverwalk and the Uptown Council, an association of downtown residents, business owners and property owners.

Most recently, the project won endorsements from neighboring property owner Denholtz Associates, which owns The Times building, where the Tampa Bay Times has its Tampa offices, the Tampa Preparatory School and the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.

"I think this is a better project as a result of the time that we took to get it right," Buckhorn said.

•••

The council also is scheduled to take a final vote on the rezoning for SkyHouse Channelside.

At 275 feet, it would be one of the tallest buildings in the Channel District. The 320-apartment tower would be on 1.5 acres east of 11th Street between Washington and Whiting streets.

The tower also would have 6,500 square feet for stores and a six-story parking garage with 567 spaces, more than the 334 required by the city and enough to provide parking for nearby retailers. Its top floor would include a fitness room, swimming pool, outdoor grilling area and views of both the city skyline and waterfront.

The project's developer is the Novare Group of Atlanta, which also developed the Element and Skypoint high-rises in downtown Tampa. If the rezoning is approved, Novare anticipates breaking ground in mid-September, with construction taking a year or less.

"Those two projects in an of themselves upwards of a thousand new residents to downtown Tampa," Buckhorn said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Two downtown apartment towers head for key Tampa City Council votes tonight 08/08/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 8, 2013 4:14pm]
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