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Condos cast as common enemy

Hundreds of people have moved into downtown's new apartments, condominiums and townhomes during the past four years, changing the face of the city and signaling a downtown renaissance.

But in the fight over whether to preserve Albert Whitted Airport, residents of St. Petersburg's high-rise condominiums have been cast as what is wrong with the city. Both sides _ those who want to preserve the airport and those who want to get rid of it _ have embraced the "No Condos" battle cry to try to get residents to vote their way.

"Condo is shorthand for high-rise buildings and cutting off the view of the water," said Joan Karins, an Eckerd College administrator and resident of Harbour Hill Condominium Apartments on Beach Drive. "It's not anything to do with the people who live there."

Many condo owners say they don't take personal offense at the campaign. They think the hue and cry over condos is a red herring that both sides in the Albert Whitted debate are using to pull voters to their side for Tuesday's referendum. In fact, many condo dwellers said they don't want to see more condos either _ especially at the airport.

"I say no to condos, too," said Dan Walbolt Sr., a lawyer who taught mass communication law at the University of South Florida and resident of the 32-unit Cloisters high-rise. "Because it would block the views from people who want to walk or drive by _ when it doesn't now."

During the past four years, some 1,500 new residential units have been or are in the process of being created downtown, according to city officials. But only 185 high-rise condos have gone up and 265 more are in drawing stages in two towers on Beach Drive.

"Everybody's focusing discussion on the towers, but that's a microcosm, a small piece of what's happening in the city," said Ron Barton, the city's economic development manager. "People focus on it because it's a tall building, but in the scheme of things as far as the residential unit count, it doesn't fairly focus on what's going on."

Condo dwellers point out they've contributed to the revitalization of downtown St. Petersburg. A grocery and drug store are under construction. And there's now a more diverse offering of restaurants, from an organic food deli to a German restaurant.

"Condos are an integral part of why it's blossoming, so what is all this about condos are bad?" asked Robert Sanderson, 50, who lives in the penthouse of Cloisters and is president of the Cloisters board. He wanted it known, though, that he's speaking only for himself. "It's almost like it's class warfare. It's like they're making out that putting in a park for all of St. Petersburg is a ruse to get rich people condos."

To be sure, getting into a high-rise condominium will cost at least $300,000 if not more. Most people who live in them do not have children, are retired or travel a lot for their jobs and want the flexibility to lock the door and leave without a hitch.

"I don't think condos have anything to do with it," said Florencia high-rise resident Shirley Linde, the author of 37 medical and cruise books, including co-author of Dr. Atkins' Super Energy Diet. "Nobody wants a wall of condo buildings or even a wall of commercial buildings."

Members of the group that wants to convert part of the airport to a park, Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, don't think the issue is about condos either.

"I guess in some ways, we didn't choose to focus on no condos," said Peter Belmont, a lawyer and chairman of the citizens' group. "But the airport people disingenuously and inaccurately portrayed the park proposal as a front for condos. So, it was just an effort to respond to the inaccurate charges that the park is really about condos."

City officials, such as Barton, have said development would not be encouraged on the airport property because it is in a hurricane-prone area.

Still, political signs throughout the downtown area warn "Vote Yes for a New Waterfront. No Jets. No condos" and "Save our waterfront."

Jack Tunstill, one of the leading advocates for the airport, acknowledged that airport supporters fear that removing any part of the airport could open it up for development.

"With the airport gone, there's nothing to preclude large vertical development and the walling off of the waterfront from supporters," he said.

In a recent St. Petersburg Times poll, six of 10 voters said they would favor new height restrictions for downtown buildings, but only half that many said they supported the airport because they feared closing it would mean more condos.

The Times poll of 600 St. Petersburg voters was conducted Oct. 18-23 by USA Research in Tampa. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

One pilot who lives in the Cloisters condominium said shifting the discussion to condos is politics. Nothing more, nothing less.

"This is America," said Blair Hennessey, an airport supporter who lives in the condo tower on Beach Drive. "You don't have to make yourself clear. You just have to make yourself convincing."

_ Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.