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Revised downtown proposal approved by planning board

A plan to redevelop the core of the city was picked to pieces Thursday night before it eventually was amended and then accepted by the city's Planning and Zoning Board. At a public hearing that lasted three and a half hours, downtown residents and business owners talked about the more modern Largo that the plan envisions.

By far the majority of the group was opposed to redevelopment.

Resident Martha Gibson said the plan, which calls for the eventual displacement of 96 businesses and 407 residences, is too grandiose in scope.

"Frankly, I was glad when I looked at it that it didn't include a domed stadium," Mrs. Gibson said.

Downtown resident Patti Christie said a redeveloped downtown area will mean "an increase in traffic."

"I fear for children's lives," she said.

Other residents who attended the public hearing said they were afraid the city would either condemn their property to make way for development or cause the value of property in the area to increase so dramatically they could no longer afford to pay taxes on their homes.

"My house is paid for now, and I'm almost to retirement," said downtown resident Harold Barton. "If its value goes up, taxes will go up. This plan is only good for people who want to sell."

To ease the fears of homeowners, board members recommended several changes to the plan. They said a special district within the downtown redevelopment area should be created, an area that would not be subject to land-use changes. Homes within the district could not be condemned to make way for business or multifamily buildings.

Neighborhoods in the special district would be residential north of Second Avenue N and south of Second Avenue S, and commercial and industrial areas west of the railroad tracks on West Bay Drive.

George Feaster _ who owns a funeral home and some downtown offices and who was a founder of Pinellas Community Bank, all in the downtown area _ was one of three businessmen who spoke in favor of the original plan, without the special residential district.

"Ever since I came to Largo, it's always been considered second-rate," he said. "Something needs to be done. I'd like to see more trees up and down the streets."

In addition to Feaster, Cotton Smith, who owns Largo Lanes, and Richard Collins, a former postmaster who owns a shopping plaza on the north side of West Bay Drive, spoke in favor of the original redevelopment plan.

Last year, the city paid a Maryland company, Land Design Research International, $51,000 to come up with a plan for downtown redevelopment.

Consultants came to Largo, looked over the city and held several meetings with residents. The plan, which calls for a widened West Bay Drive with a picturesque median, the addition of several mini-parks, and more attractive downtown store fronts, is the byproduct of the study.

The plan also calls for the mostly small, one-story, single-family homes downtown to be replaced by two- and three-story condominium and apartment buildings.

Redevelopment opponent Jim Abel gave this observation: "Widening West Bay Drive and then filling it up with people is like a cat chasing its tail. It's not going to do much good."

Only board member Richard Leber voted against the amended plan. Members Jan Whitlow, Charles Lattimer, Cheryl Bowman and Chairwoman P.

A. Tyrer voted in favor.

On Tuesday, Largo Community Development Director Ric Goss will take the board's recommendation to a special meeting of the City Commission, which acts as the Community Redevelopment Agency.

That meeting is at 5:30 p.m. at Largo City Hall, 225 First Ave. SW.

Abel was skeptical Friday that commissioners would agree to the amended plan.

"They're smart enough to know the plan won't work without condemnation," he said.

City Manager Stephen Bonczek, who supports the redevelopment plan, was not pleased with the board's recommendation.

"Maybe some compromise was in order; I'm not sure," Bonczek said Friday. "I'm pleased they approved a plan. But it weakened the integrity of the planning process."

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