ST. PETERSBURG — In a move Thursday that stunned both supporters and opponents, the City Council turned thumbs down on the Bezu, a proposed 23-story, 28-unit condo tower that would have risen next to one of downtown's most historic buildings.
The vote came after a marathon six-hour hearing in which more than two dozen speakers took to the podium, some sporting black "No Bezu" stickers and the others wearing big green "Now Bezu" ones.
"It's a huge disappointment,'' Bezu developer Michel Reginano said afterward. "The huge issue to me is that I did everything required. Why would a developer want to continue in St. Pete?''
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two new condo projects for same street in downtown St. Pete (Sept. 25, 2017)
Reginano, who estimated he's spent $2 million "and counting'' on the Bezu, said it was too early to tell where he will appeal the decision to a circuit judge, revise the plans or scrap the project on First Street N and Fourth Avenue N.
Opponents said they were surprised — but heartened — by the council's decision.
"Until the very last vote, I felt that the financial interests were going to prevail,'' said Helen Moore, a resident of the adjacent Flori de Leon, a 1920s-era building where baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once lived.
This was the second time a city panel has struck down the Bezu. In December, the Development Review Commission unanimously rejected the building after opponents charged it was far too big for its site and would be incompatible with the 7-story Flori de Leon and a neighborhood comprised largely of townhomes.
It would have taken a "super majority'' vote of council members — six of the eight members — to override the December decision. Instead the vote was 4-4 with Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Gina Driscoll, Steve Kornell and Darden Rice agreeing with the review commission's rejection.
"We are at a crux in this city,'' Wheeler-Bowman said. "People feel that we are about to lose some of the things that made us special.''
Driscoll, who was elected last year and whose district includes downtown, called the Bezu a "fantastic building'' but in the wrong location. And she disagreed with claims that the vote would send a bad signal to developers or slow the city's growth momentum.
"I find it hard to believe that no one is going to want to build anything here,'' she said.
But council members Amy Foster, Brandi Gabbard, Charles Gerdes and Ed Montanari said they thought the Bezu's developer had met most of the criteria set out by the city. It would be unfair to turn it down.
Gerdes, in particular, acknowledged opponents' concerns over the mass of the Bezu and the compatibility, or lack of it, with the much smaller Flori de Leon.
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"Personally, I think the project is too big for a 10,000 (square foot) property,'' he said. But he still supported it.
In impassioned public comments, opponents compared the tall, skinny Bezu to a "giant toothbrush'' and a middle finger salute to the neighborhood. "We're a Shaquille O'Neal away from this building,'' said Trevor Wells, whose condo in the nearby Spanish Palms would be less than eight feet from one of the Bezu walls. Former NBA star O'Neal is 7-foot-1.
After the December hearing, the Bezu's developers made several changes to the project. Among them were moving a generator and totally enclosing the five-story garage so fumes and exhaust would not bother residents of the Flori de Leon. The 90-year-old building lacks central air-conditioning, and residents often leave their windows open.
"We made a lot of changes from the public feedback,'' Todd Pressman, a representative for the developer, told council members.
But opponents, while stressing they were not against progress, said that approving the Bezu would be a mistake that could not be corrected.
"Developers come and go,'' said Wayne Thomas, a Flori de Leon resident. "They can take their plans and go elsewhere. This is an existential thing with the Flori. We can't move it — it's there and it will stay there.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate