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St. Pete panel deals potentially fatal blow to controverisal Bezu condo tower

Developers of what was originally called Bezu, a proposed condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg, cut the height from 300 to 180 feet to be more compatible with the historic Flori de Leon next door but the project continued to be criticized as out of keeping with the Flori and other residential buildings in the area. [Rendering by Architectonics as submitted to the City of St. Petersburg]
Published Dec. 14, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Developers of a controversial condo tower proposed for downtown St. Petersburg hit a major roadblock Thursday when a key city panel failed to approve the project.

City council members, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, voted 4-4 on a motion to approve the 19-story, 18-unit Blue Lotus, formerly called Bezu. A majority vote was required for approval.

"I'm very happy,'' said William Herrmann, who has led a year-long effort to kill the project. "(Council) saw how it does not fit in.''

Stunned members of the development team had no immediate comment. In theory, they could sue the redevelopment agency, although the project already is tied up in legal action.

"I think we voted for another lawsuit, and a lot of uncertainty,'' said Chris Steinhocher, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of the tower planned for Fourth Avenue N two blocks from Beach Drive.

Opponents, who have appeared twice before the Development Review Commission and twice before the City Council, argue that the tower would be incompatible with other residential properties in the area including the historic and much smaller Flori De Leon cooperative apartments next door.

Council member Charles Gerdes said Thursday that he understood opponents' concerns that "we are in danger of losing what a wonderful place St. Petersburg has become.'' But, he added, Blue Lotus is "fully compliant'' with the city's land use regulations and to deny it would create uncertainty for developers and discourage new investment in the city.

Gerdes also criticized opponents who on social media have suggested that city staffers — who recommended approval of Blue Lotus — are tied to developers or are biased in their favor.

"That is entirely baseless,'' Gerdes said before voting in favor of the project along with Ed Montanari, Amy Foster and Brandi Gabbard. Voting against were Gina Driscoll, Darden Rice, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Steve Kornell.

The project has ping-ponged between city panels since last December. Both the review commission and the council rejected the original plans, which called for a tower nearly 300 feet tall with 29 units.

Developer Michel Regignano scaled back the project to 180 feet with 20 units, winning approval from the review commission. Opponents unsuccessfully appealed that decision to the city council.

The project, now slightly smaller, also needed approval of the council sitting as the redevelopment agency. That vote was scheduled for last week but Kornell was absent. Gerdes made a motion to continue the matter to this week when all council members would be present.

Herrmann praised Gerdes for his motion even though he realized that the vote could be 4-4, potentially killing a project he supported.

"What council member Gerdes did was one of the most magnanimous and professional gestures I've ever observed in public service,'' Herrmann said.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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