St. Petersburg apartment tower wins approval despite simmering dispute

Opponents from the neighboring Flori de Leon still criticize the scale of the building, formerly known as the Blue Lotus and, before that, the Bezu.
Construction of the Julia apartment tower continues to be criticized as out of keeping with the next-door Flori de Leon apartments.
Construction of the Julia apartment tower continues to be criticized as out of keeping with the next-door Flori de Leon apartments. [ Rendering by Architectonics as submitted to the City of St. Petersburg ]
Published June 30, 2022|Updated July 3, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG —When Nancy Tomasetti decided to move to St. Petersburg four years ago, a friend asked, “Isn’t that where people go to die?”

Tomasetti was confused.

“Well, what if that appeals to me?” she replied. “To have a sense of history around me.”

She moved into the seven-story Flori de Leon, one of downtown’s most historic residential buildings. Built in 1926 on Fourth Avenue N, it boasts baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as past residents.

But instead of historic charm, Tomasetti has found herself embroiled in a classic Florida dispute.

Next to the Flori, developers have proposed to raise an apartment tower — previously called Blue Lotus and Bezu — that opponents denounce as too tall and modern for its historic surroundings. After butting heads in city panels and lawsuits, both sides seemed resigned to accept a scaled-back version of the tower two years ago.

Now the developers are back with a new expansion request. City Council members approved an increase in the number of residential units there at a meeting this month.

Concerned neighbors showed up too, making clear that opposition to what is now called the Julia — and residents’ fervor to preserve downtown St. Pete — hasn’t gone away.

New plans would increase the Julia’s number of residences from 20 to 36, and they would be rentals instead of condo units. The building’s height and footprint would stay the same.

City staff are not aware of when work on the site could begin, but developers could get one step closer if the Development Review Commission approves the new plans on July 6.

The Tampa Bay Times reached out twice to Craig Taraszki, a lawyer representing developer Driven Ziggy LLC, who said he could not share client information but would pass along the request for comment. No one from Driven Ziggy responded.

City meetings and lawsuits

Initial plans in 2017 for Bezu called for a 300-foot tall, 29-unit building on a sliver of land at Fourth Avenue N and First Street. The City Council and the Development Review Commission rejected the proposal, agreeing with neighbors’ impassioned public comments that it was incompatible with the seven-story Flori.

Developers then cut the proposal to 180 feet and 20 units. After that version passed through the Review Commission and City Council, opponents filed the first round of lawsuits in 2018. They claimed the city denied them due process.

Months later, the City Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, rejected the same version of the project. That vote prompted a lawsuit from developers.

Developers then redesigned the base of the Julia to incorporate design features to echo the Flori’s Mediterranean Revival style, including awnings and windows meant to resemble storefronts. The Community Redevelopment Agency approved it in 2019.

The next year, judges shot down an opponents’ lawsuit, clearing one of the last remaining hurdles. Still, progress has stalled for the last two years.

A ‘timeless conflict’

Flori resident William Herrmann has spearheaded opposition to the proposed development since 2017. He was a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by Flori residents, and says he’s been to every single City Council meeting about the project.

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He and his wife were drawn to the Flori’s unique “character” — the way the building’s pale yellow shade and H-shape structure grab the attention of passersby.

“When you look at these new buildings, that doesn’t happen. I can take some of them and plop (them) in Fort Lauderdale or on the east side of Manhattan,” Herrmann said. “It’s generic.”

Herrmann points out that he isn’t against development and progress in downtown St. Petersburg.

“Our objection is that this is predominantly a residential area. The project is out of scale. It’s inappropriate. It doesn’t fit,” he said.

Developers say the current scaled-down version of the Julia is now compatible with the neighborhood. But across several renditions of the tower, neighbors’ concerns about scale and style have remained largely unchanged.

At the June 16 City Council meeting, one Flori resident likened plans for the Julia’s Mediterranean-style base to “going to Disney World. It’s a fake experience.”

“There are changes that have been made to the plan that, on a larger parcel, might seem like very small changes ... But on something this small ... it is significant,” said City Council member Gina Driscoll, who voted against approving the increase in units.

Some are also concerned about shaking that might result from construction on the lot, which could damage nearby historic buildings, said Manny Leto, executive director of Preserve the ‘Burg, at the meeting.

Tomasetti worries the Flori could suffer the same fate as the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, which collapsed in June 2021 and killed 98. A lawsuit claims that the construction of an adjacent building destabilized Champlain South, triggering the collapse.

The city’s Urban Planning and Historic Preservation staff found the Julia compatible with nearby historic buildings, in terms of “scale, mass, building materials, and other impacts,” according to a June 21 memo to St. Petersburg Development Review Services.

Planners considered the possible effects of the Julia’s construction on surrounding buildings before making the recommendation, according to Corey Malyszka, city urban design and development coordinator. He did not mention any examination into possible shaking from construction.

Staff in the memo described tensions between development and concerns about compatibility as a “timeless conflict,” referring to the seven-story Flori’s incongruity with adjacent one- and two-story buildings at the time of its construction.

Developers at the City Council meeting said they’ve attempted to address as many concerns as possible.

“When the Flori de Leon was built, I’m sure there were unhappy neighbors,” architect Joseph Lacki said. “Progress is progress, I suppose.”