ST. PETERSBURG — An Illinois company won the go-ahead Thursday to build a 21-story, 270-unit apartment tower in the city's Mirror Lake area despite concerns it will displace dozens of current residents and destroy the character of "a really remarkable'' neighborhood.
The city council voted 5-to-2 in favor of the $69-million project after Mayor Rick Kriseman warned that denial could scare away developers and open the city to lawsuits costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
"We have a code, and as long as a project follows the code we have an obligation to permit that project to go forward,'' Kriseman said. He added, though, that the city should consider raising the fees that developers pay into an affordable housing fund.
The tower near the historic Mirror Lake Library will replace several low-rise apartment buildings, built between 1916 and the early 1920s, that have a total of 97 units. Many of the tenants are either young people or Social Security recipients who will be unable to afford the rents in the new building or in other high-end apartments downtown.
"I think a legitimate question to ask is, 'are we growing the way we want to grow in respect to the values of the city or are we pushing people out in the name of progress?' '' said council member Darden Rice, who with Steve Kornell voted against the project. "We need to have some real conversations about gentrification before it's too late.''
The city's Development Review Commission unanimously approved the tower in December, but the group Preserve The 'Burg appealed the decision to the council and mounted an online campaign that generated more than 600 emails in opposition. For three hours Thursday, speaker after speaker complained that the tower at Fifth Street N and Third Avenue would be grossly out of scale in a tranquil area beloved for its shuffle board courts and century old Beaux Arts library.
"Mirror Lake is the oldest section of the city, it was developed before downtown,'' historian Raymond Arsenault said. "You get a sense when you walk around how special it is. There are vacant lots where you could build (this tower); you don't have to destroy a whole cluster of buildings to do it and destroy the fabric of a really remarkable neighborhood.''
Bonnie Shepard, who has worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program, said high-rise buildings have "destroyed the look and feel'' of too many other cities she's seen.
"I came here to get rid of the high-rises,'' said Shepard, who moved to St. Petersburg two months ago. "I wanted to have a nice, charming feel but I'm very, very disappointed in the trend of high-rises.''
Attorney Don Mastry, representing Inland National Development, stressed that the project meets zoning and land use codes and would not replace any buildings that have been designated as having historic value. Moreover, he said, the tower would be substantially shorter than one approved for the same site in 2005.
"There is nothing in our code that says an unprotected building cannot be demolished,'' Mastry said. "I love St. Pete as much as anybody and in a few weeks I will have lived here 79 years. This building is not going to destroy the neighborhood."
Council member Gina Driscoll agreed.
"This is a tough day for me,'' she said. "Mirror Lake is possibly my favorite spot in the entire city. But the developer has done what it needs to do and I think we can coexist with this building and keep Mirror Lake special. We have to look at the rules we have today, not those that we want for tomorrow.''
Council member Brandi Gabbard also voted in favor of the project although she lamented the demolition of "super cool'' old apartment buildings.
"Affordable housing is near and dear to my heart above all else,'' she said. "We have to have some conversation about the loss of these units but unfortunately that's not part of the criteria now.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.