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Height limits limiting designs

(ran Beach edition)

Redevelopment is a mathematical exercise. Land regulations allow a certain density, building height, setbacks and so forth. Within those parameters developers factor in costs and market demands, then create a home or hotel or condominium complex. The city of Treasure Island is seeing that limiting some factors limits the kind of development a hot market is driving.

"We're going to have concrete from one end of the island to the other," said Larry Hoffman, the president of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce.

When city voters decided four years ago to require citywide votes on any tall buildings or increased density, they took what was an attractive real estate market and constrained its options, say city officials and developers. The new city rules did not, as some predicted, destroy tourism in the city, but they helped change the way the city looks and feels.

"If I had a blank slate, I'd design something different," said Pete Volmar, an architect who has designed several new projects along Gulf Boulevard. "You get what you get. The aesthetics are as good as you're going to get in this market."

The result, Volmar said, is a series of buildings five stories tall with a similar shape. Instead of having a varied skyline, the result is a hedgerow of sameness.

Everyone involved agrees the market is the main factor, as thousands of baby boomers set their sights on Florida, pushing land prices higher. Older homes, hotels and motels don't have the facilities to accommodate the demand and can't improve without running into their own higher costs. Developers pay big money for these properties, but then they have to recoup that price.

"Because of the land cost, they want to maximize the number of units and the square footage," said Lynn Rosetti, Treasure Island's city planner. To do that without being able to build up means lots of low buildings. "Residential condos, those are the biggest boxes."

The shift in Treasure Island's landscape is not the product of its regulations or voter demands, but they shape that landscape. Rosetti said much of the change would have come about from older buildings having to meet federal requirements when they redevelop. What new developments look like is where the math can come in.

"You could trade height for more open space," said city manager Ralph Stone. That was a big part of the plan voters denounced in political turmoil that pushed out Stone's predecessor. "Instead, you have buildings 50- 60-feet tall, but wide."

The restrictions also limit the types of developments. In a community that lacks a flagship hotel, restrictions may keep one from ever coming in.

"You won't see a Marriott or Starwood or Hyatt in Treasure Island because of the height restriction," said Steven Rodriguez, the president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Hospitality Association. Large resorts require height because they need many rooms and building horizontally is not affordable. "Treasure Island may be left behind when all is said and done."

There's no lack of luxury, however, as many of the new projects cover land expense with upscale development. On a beach that had inexpensive motel rooms, million-dollar condos and investment condo hotels are changing the demographics of what was a more middle-class community.

"You can't sell $5 pancakes to that crowd," said Dave Coover, who has run Robby's Pancake House on Treasure Island since 1973. Coover is in the process of converting his building to the Middle Grounds Grill, an upscale fish and steak house aimed at the new, monied residents. "The demographics are here, no question. They better be here, or else this is coming down and I'm going to build a hotel condo."

Volmar said the new buildings aren't ugly, just monotonous. And the new, wealthy residents and visitors, while shifting the business community upmarket, will not necessarily ruin the island. Rosetti says its a kind of gentrification that is happening throughout Pinellas County. The chamber's Hoffman says it's generational, with people like himself moving into an area formerly inhabited by their parents' generation. The result might not be harmful, but it is surely different.

"Visitors come in here and just shake their heads at these changes," Hoffman said. "We're losing all the ambience of our city."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sppimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com

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