Developers aren't known for giving substantial concessions to their opponents, so the revised plan for a combined Westin hotel and condominium at the corner of Fifth Avenue and First Street N in downtown St. Petersburg is a pleasant surprise. Fuel Group International, the developer, has scaled back the size of its hulking building by a third and has made a serious attempt to answer other concerns of surrounding property owners.
The original application for a 33-story building with a floor area ratio (or FAR, a measurement of a building's development density) of 14.5 was correctly rejected by the city's Environmental Development Commission. It was just too much for the edge of downtown. Now Fuel Group has returned to City Hall seeking approval for a 23-story building and a FAR of 9.6. In addition to reducing the size of the building, the developer agreed to improve the site's street-level amenities, traffic flow and parking.
The developer also has made an effort to listen to neighborhood associations that objected to the first plan. The two sides apparently failed to work out all of their differences, and there will be stiff opposition to the revised plan as well. But the reasons to oppose this project have shrunk along with the building.
Another upscale hotel would be an asset to a downtown that could use more rooms, and the building's decorative architecture and landscaping would replace a current eyesore. At 23 stories the building still would be the largest within a couple of blocks, but the reduced scale is a reasonable attempt to bring the project more in line with its surroundings.
The residential neighbors' chief concern is no longer the size of the building but the nature of its use. They are worried that the developer will operate a nightclub on the site, creating late-night noise, traffic and trouble. That's a legitimate issue. Both Fuel Group and city officials need to give the skeptics real assurances that it won't happen.
Development decisions in a growing urban area that mixes commercial and residential uses are always difficult. The Environmental Development Commission, which will decide the project's fate at a public hearing today, can find more reasons to be positive this time.