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The rules of urban development

Published Feb. 27, 2006

Developer Grady Pridgen has big plans for his land in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg just off I-275 - office and industrial space for upward of 1,000 workers, more than 1-million square feet of retail, hundreds of hotel rooms and 3,000 condominiums. It would be a place where people could live, work and shop. Only one problem: To pull it off, he says he needs to circumvent the state's growth-management law.

Florida residents, particularly those in densely populated Pinellas County, won't be so easily fooled. While Pridgen uses the latest buzz words for his "green" development to provide "affordable housing," here are the facts: He would more than double the surrounding density, from 30 condo units per acre to 75 units per acre, and pour so many cars onto already strained roads that it could become "a bottleneck for the whole county," said veteran county planning director Brian Smith.

Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, had been carrying water for Pridgen in the Legislature. Farkas pitched a bill to the Pinellas delegation that would have exempted Pridgen's project from the state's "transportation concurrency" requirement, under which roads must be able to handle the impact of new development. Now Farkas says he has dropped the effort because none of the five impacted parties - the cities of St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, Pinellas County, the regional planning council or the Department of Transportation - supported his bill. "Therefore, the bill is dead," Farkas said Thursday.

Good, because it would have set a dangerous precedent for the entire state. "Once you've said you don't have to follow state law, how could you limit it to Pinellas County?" asked Smith.

Pridgen and Farkas say current law makes it difficult to promote dense urban development, which is preferable to further suburban sprawl in the rapidly growing state. If that is the case, then they need to address it in open debate where competing interests and the public have their say.

While he seems to have a serious interest in providing affordable housing, if Pridgen expects wide support for his projects, he's going to have to play by the rules. A well-planned development truly aimed at limiting sprawl and providing affordable housing should not require circumventing growth management laws.