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Sembler, neighbors spar over Tyrone proposal

(Ran South, East, Seminole, West editions)

The proposal was for a mixed-use shopping center featuring a Publix on land owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg at 66th Street and Ninth Avenue N. It would be a showcase with extra landscaping and buffering, and the neighborhood would be better for it, the Sembler associates said. The only problem was, the neighbors didn't feel it was necessary and lobbied the city to deny a rezoning.

That was 1972. In 2006, the Sembler Co. is making an almost identical pitch on a very similar project at the same site - and the neighbors are still opposed and lobbying the city. Before Tuesday night's four-hour planning commission hearing was continued until March, neighbors argued that the project was not needed and not wanted.

"I'm not saying the Sembler Co. doesn't build attractive sites, but it's not wanted," said Andrew Salzman, an attorney representing six neighborhood associations opposed to Sembler's plan to build 48 townhomes and an 88,000-square-foot shopping center on 18 acres. "This is supposed to be a neighborhood center. These are the neighbors."

Hundreds of opponents flooded the City Council chambers for the hearing, spilling out into conference and waiting rooms throughout the building, most wearing the group's red shirts that read: "Commercial rezoning. I don't want it. I don't need it. Just say no."

Sembler would require the land to be rezoned commercial from its current institutional classification, a remnant from when the property was the home of Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic high school for girls, torn down around the time Sembler first made a bid for the land. The developer's cause was harmed by city staff's report recommending a denial of the rezoning.

City planner Rick MacAulay said the Sembler proposal would likely not harm traffic in the area, but its commercial use was inconsistent with the city's comprehensive plan and that a shopping center would be incompatible with the residential neighborhoods surrounding the site on three sides. He also said, contrary to Sembler's own analysis, that there is no need for more shopping centers in the area, near Tyrone Square Mall.

"There are nine shopping centers within 2 miles of this site," MacAulay said. "We have enough commercial land to satisfy the city's needs for the next 20 years."

Sembler's calculations had indicated a need for 40,000 square feet of commercial space, but city economic development staffers picked apart those numbers and determined that there was a surplus of 400,000 to 600,000 square feet in the area. Sembler president Craig Sher said he respects city staffers but, in this case, they were wrong.

"There is too much commercial in some areas of the city and not enough in others," he said, adding that there are retailers willing to pay for as much as 1-million square feet of space in the Tyrone area. "We do not have a demand problem. We have a supply problem."

Sher said the existing zoning would allow 235,000 square feet of institutional space, equivalent to a Super Wal-Mart, but that his project's modest size would be far less obtrusive than what the city currently allows. He also showed city statements about economic development and quoted Mayor Rick Baker's words in support of more retail in St. Petersburg.

"Maybe the planning staff should talk to the economic development staff and get on the same page," he said.

Sher has said the company has gone out of its way to make this proposal as palatable to the neighborhood as possible. Sembler has offered $400,000 in improvements to surrounding areas and is entertaining more possibilities. Sher and others have said neighbors need to realize that the property will not remain vacant forever, echoing sentiments from 1972, so they would do well to allow an attractive development like this or face something less pleasant.

Neighbors have enjoyed the land as an open area and suggested it could become a park, though it's unclear if that is affordable. They've also said they'd be glad to have a public school there, though the diocese has said it fears "tension" if a public school were put by St. Petersburg Catholic High School, just to the east. Sher said he understands neighbors' reaction and has seen it before from those close to such a development.

"If I lived across the street, I'd oppose it, too," he said. He added that there is great support from the "trade area," or market this center would serve. "No one ever regrets the projects we do."

Oddly enough, the arguments for and against the project closely resemble those of 34 years earlier. Sher has said this project would be a trophy for the community. In 1972 Mel Sembler said of the shopping office proposal: "I'm convinced we'll be an asset to the area." Both projects emphasized green space, landscaping and a parklike atmosphere, if not an actual park.

Residents, then as now, said they don't need any more shopping in their area and fear that the project would harm their quality of life. In 1972, there were six shopping centers within a mile of the site, but Sembler said then, as Sher does now, that retailers are eager to move in. Sembler called the 1972 project "an enlightened development," while Sher says the current proposal exemplifies and exceeds the city's Vision 2020 planning goals.

"We think our project is the best possible use for the land," said Mel Sembler. Neighbors said they would prefer residential development in an area zoned as such, then and now.

In 1972, the city denied Sembler's rezoning request and the developer withdrew the proposal.

Information from Times files was used in this report.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or or by participating in