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Despite protest, apartments approved

Despite strong objections from a neighboring complex, a city board on Tuesday approved plans for a massive apartment complex to be built on the site of the former Sunshine Mall.

The Community Development Board decided to allow a 156-unit apartment complex on Missouri Avenue just south of Druid Road. It will be the fourth complex at the site, whose redevelopment has been heralded as an important step in the renaissance of downtown.

The new apartment community, to be called the Heights at Clearwater, was vehemently protested by the owners and developers of a rival complex, called the Villas at Renaissance Square.

The Villas' Texas-based developer, Hugh Caraway, argued that the new complex will add to a "poorly planned mishmash" of independent apartment complexes at the old Sunshine Mall site.

Caraway said he would not have purchased the land for his complex had he known that two four-story apartment buildings would someday be allowed along Missouri Avenue in front of his complex, making it difficult for potential renters to find his Villas.

The original plan for the Sunshine Mall redevelopment project called for retail development along Missouri. The 200-unit Villas were to be behind the stores on Missouri, set back from the road. Now the large new apartment complex will be built on Missouri, on either side of the Villas' entryway drive.

"It's going to reduce the value of my property," Caraway said. "It will compete with my project, and it will confuse people. Their new clubhouse is going to be built right behind my main sign!"

Caraway added that he thinks there is a weak market for apartments in the area; his company has had to work hard to keep 90 percent of his garden apartment Villas occupied.

Two other existing projects developed in the past two years at the former Sunshine Mall site have struggled with occupancy rates as well, Caraway said.

A senior housing complex was scaled down from original plans. Now, Lexington Club, a 240-unit community for seniors that was developed by CED Construction, has less than 50 percent of its units occupied, Caraway said.

Mainstreet Apartments, an upscale complex with 204 units on the site, was sold to the Clearwater Housing Authority. It sets aside some units for certain income brackets. But it has had a slightly lower occupancy rate than the Villas.

Despite Caraway's arguments, the city's planning board decided with a 6-to-1 vote to allow the new apartment complex to be built and change the previously approved site plan for the 36-acre former Sunshine Mall property.

It was the second vote the board had taken on the project this year; the first vote was void because the city had made a mistake in not appropriately notifying Caraway of the pending project so he could come argue against it.

To allow a 156-unit complex on Missouri, the city will permit the new complex's developer, Roberto Hatfield, to double the number of units that might otherwise be allowed under the zoning on the 3.2-acre site for the new community.

Nevertheless, Ed Armstrong, Hatfield's attorney, argued that the apartments would actually be less development than the retail project originally envisioned in front of the Villas.

Armstrong suggested that Caraway is just a "pretty unhappy guy" and that there was no legal reason for the city not to allow the new apartment complex to be built.

Armstrong argued that Caraway should have known that the land in front of his complex could later be developed when he bought the land from Hatfield's company, which bought the Sunshine Mall site and organized the original planning for the land three years ago.

Hatfield said the new complex, the Heights, will offer "luxury" apartments and will include parking in a garage and elevators to ferry residents to their floors. Units are expected to rent for $790 to $1,050.

But Hatfield won't be able begin construction right away.

Caraway said he would appeal the planning board's decision and consider other litigation to stop the Heights complex from going forward. Caraway had previously sued Hatfield's company over other delays and problems with building the Villas, but that lawsuit was settled.

Caraway's company also is suing Florida Design Consultants, the engineering firm that did the original planning for the Sunshine Mall apartment developments.