Court ruling clears path for controversial tower in downtown St. Petersburg

The court challenge was one of the last remaining hurdles for the developers of the Bezu/Blue Lotus condo tower.
The most recent rendering of the proposed Bezu/Blue Lotus condo tower planned for downtown St. Petersburg.
The most recent rendering of the proposed Bezu/Blue Lotus condo tower planned for downtown St. Petersburg. [ Architectonics ]
Published April 29, 2020|Updated April 29, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — A court order has cleared the way for the construction of the Bezu/Blue Lotus condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg, a project that has been mired in controversy since it was first introduced in 2017.

The order, issued last week by a panel of three Sixth Judicial Circuit judges, denied an appeal by opponents of the project, who argued that the city did not follow its rules and violated principles of due process.

The order means the project, which calls for a 19-story, 18-unit tower on a sliver of land at the corner of 4th Avenue N and First Street, likely now has a clear path to development. Opponents to the building are weighing their options.

“We’re deeply disappointed in the court’s decision," said Bill Herrmann, who lives in the complex next door, the Flori de Leon, an historic 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building that once counted Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as tenants. “We’re going to be reviewing this decision and making a determination if we’re going to appeal it or go for a rehearing."

The petition filed by Herrmann and other opponents — who believe the project’s height and design are incompatible with the neighborhood and the style of the Flori de Leon — targeted the city’s review process.

The project, which was first called Bezu and later renamed Blue Lotus, has bounced between city panels, going through several iterations and generating lawsuits from both sides.

The plans initially called for a 300-foot tower with 29 units, a concept rejected by both the city’s Development Review Commission and the City Council. The developer scaled back the building to 19 stories, winning approval from the review commission in 2018. Opponents appealed to City Council, hoping that body would overturn the review commission.

Six votes were needed to overturn it, but after the developers and the opponents made presentations, the vote was 4-4, meaning the project could go forward. That generated the first round of lawsuits, from Herrmann and other opponents.

They argued the city’s meeting format robbed them of due process, saying they were not given equal time to present their side at the meeting. They also said the project was “substantially similar” to the previous version, which did not get approval. A developer cannot bring a project forward if it is “substantially similar” to a previous project that was rejected within the last 18 months. They also accused the city of not following the law.

Months later, the same version of the project was rejected by the City Council, this time sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, in another 4-4 vote. In that setting, the project needed a majority vote for approval.

That vote prompted a lawsuit from developer The Driven Ziggy LLC.

After that failed bid, the developer changed the lower part of the tower facing Fourth Avenue N, redesigning it to look more like the Flori De Leon. Those plans ultimately won approval from the Community Redevelopment Agency in April 2019.

At that point, the remaining holdup was the outstanding suit from opponents. Last week, judges Jack St. Arnold, Patricia Muscarella and Keith Meyer denied their claims.

A lawyer representing The Driven Ziggy LLC, Craig Taraszki, said he was pleased with the judge’s order.

“We’re hopeful the project will still be able to be a success," he said, in light of the economic shutdown in response to the coronavirus.

He said he knew of no timeline for when work could begin on the site.

Managing Assistant City Attorney Michael Dema, who worked on the project for the city, said the review process worked as it’s supposed to.

“I think what you see here is the process worked, for everybody,” he said Wednesday. “You got a more compatible building after the process played out.”