Given the dismal state of the economy and credit markets, Dunedin city commissioners were grateful last week that a developer partnering with the city on a downtown project merely wants to break it into phases rather than pack up and leave.
That developer Pizzuti Solutions is sticking around is a testament to the positive working relationship carefully cultivated with the developer by the city staff as well as the continued appeal of the downtown Dunedin market.
"I can't help but think we're the envy of a lot of communities around here to even be having this discussion about a project of this quality and to be working with what appears to be a good partner," said Commissioner Julie Scales.
Thursday night, the City Commission unanimously approved Pizzuti's preliminary site plan for what is being called the Gateway project. The developer plans to build 96,000 square feet of retail and office space and 43 residential units in six separate buildings on about 5 acres of land near the apex of Main Street and Skinner Boulevard on the east end of downtown.
The city owns about 4 acres of the property and plans to sell it to Pizzuti if a purchase contract is approved next month. Last year, the city and Pizzuti negotiated a sale price of $3.25-million for the land and Pizzuti agreed to try to include a gourmet grocery and some affordable housing.
However, because of the challenges of developing in today's economy, Pizzuti wants to make a different arrangement: buy a portion of the property now for $1.2-million and develop it, then buy the remaining land for $1.65-million by 2011 and develop the second phase. The city would retain about half an acre valued at $400,000 and partner with someone else to build affordable housing.
It isn't exactly what the city had in mind, but as city officials have noted, these times call for creativity.
The economy has affected the proposed project in another way that residents may regard as positive. At that location, the developer could build up to four stories and up to 30 residential units per acre. But Pizzuti, showing a cautious approach, is going up only three floors and building only eight units per acre. That's quite a change for local governments accustomed to being pressured to add more density and height so a developer can "recover the investment" in the land.
Perhaps as a result, not a single resident spoke against the project at Thursday's meeting.
Thanks to new architectural design standards adopted by the city last year, the architecture of the Gateway project has only improved from early proposals. A rendering shows arches, stepbacks, columns and creative facades, especially on the retail side that will front Main Street. Offices will front Skinner Boulevard, and residential units will be on the floors above the shops and offices. An extension of Milwaukee Avenue will be built to serve the new complex.
Approval of the preliminary site plan Thursday was only the first of several needed approvals. On May 15, the City Commission is scheduled to consider the new purchase contract and the draft of a development agreement setting out all the details of the project and the responsibilities of the developer and the city.
While some may be disappointed that the Gateway project will take longer to finish than expected, downtown's first true mixed-use project promises to be a good anchor that will strengthen the east end, bringing new residents, businesses and shoppers to the downtown community. It certainly will do more for downtown than the new city hall that officials earlier had planned and wisely abandoned.