St. Petersburg's development future resides in a document as thick as a phone book compiled over six years and after countless meetings. Called the Land Development Regulations (or LDRs), the document is scheduled to be adopted Thursday by the City Council. Some individuals and groups probably will object to details, particularly the unlimited building height allowed in parts of downtown, but overall it is a thoughtful document.
One goal of the Development Services Department in writing the new regulations was to make them more easily understandable for the general public. With detailed maps, diagrams, photos and charts, the new regulations are certainly approachable. Even more important, the city is trying to codify the diverse wishes and needs of a population that values its neighborhoods at least as much as its booming downtown. Pleasing both developers and residents is difficult, though this document makes a serious effort to do so.
Most of the controversy that remains focuses on the new downtown zoning regulations. Generally bounded by Fifth Avenues N and S and Interstate 275, the downtown has five proposed development zones intended to create a tiered effect. The tallest buildings would go in the downtown center, generally two or three blocks on either side of Central Avenue between First Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Maximum building height would decrease as construction nears the edges of downtown.
The concept is right. Plus the city would encourage the kind of development it wants though a series of exemptions and bonuses to allow increased density. For example, a project in the downtown core or center could ask for an unlimited floor area ratio (one measure of density). To get it the developer would have to meet some mix of requirements deemed desirable by the city: enclosed and decorative parking facilities; financial support for streetscape improvements, mass transit and affordable housing; public art; historic preservation. In those core and central zones, the buildings could rise well above what currently exists. And it will be easier for a developer to gain increased height and density for office, retail and hotel construction than for another condo tower.
In the development zone that borders neighborhoods to the north and south, building height and density would be limited. Buildings could not exceed 200 feet (75 feet around Mirror Lake) and their floor area ratio would be capped. That is not restrictive enough for some neighborhood representatives, though it should be seen as preferable to the current lack of guidance in those transitional areas of downtown.
No one could argue that the drafting of new development regulations was hasty or excluded the public. Where there was confusion and contention before, there should be more clarity. In the end, that should help developers and residents resolve their differences.
The City Council needs to make sure it has answered reasonable neighborhood fears. It is appropriate to put density in the center of downtown, both in St. Petersburg and in the state's other large cities. That way, inevitable (and desirable) economic growth can occur without negative impacts on residential neighborhoods and suburbs, and the critical mass for better public transit can take shape.
Yet few cities have as strong and historically significant a residential character close to downtown as St. Petersburg. The council needs to ensure this is the right formula to lift the downtown center without harming nearby neighborhoods.