ST. PETERSBURG — The controversial Bezu condo tower downtown won the go-ahead from city council Thursday despite impassioned pleas from opponents, some of whom came from as far away as Oregon and Maine.
The 4-4 vote fell two short of the super majority needed to overturn the Development Review Commission’s previous approval of the 19-story tower next to the historic Flori de Leon apartments.
"Obviously we’re thrilled but it’s a bittersweet victory," said Michel Regignano, one of the principals in the project. "All the trials and tribulations are certainly a signal to other developers."
William Herrmann, a Flori de Leon resident who spearheaded the opposition, said he plans to appeal the case to circuit court. "I understand the position of the developers but that building is still incompatible (with the area)," he said. "There were 50 letters against it for every unit in the building."
This was the fourth public hearing on Bezu, which was scaled down from 288 feet to 180 feet and from 29 units to 20 units after the review commission and city council rejected the initial plans.
"We are putting five pounds of sugar in an eight-pound bag," said Todd Pressman, a member of the development team. He and other backers noted that Bezu at 100 4th Avenue N complied with the city’s comprehensive plan and is in a district where buildings can theoretically reach unlimited heights.
Opponents, though, complained that even the "Son of Bezu" remains incompatible with the seven-story Flori de Leon and other buildings in the area. Unlike most downtown condo towers, it would not set back from the sidewalk but soar straight up "like a looming gray ghost," as one speaker put it.
"You are the keepers of this city’s vision and this may be the most important vote you ever take," Steven Seibert, a former Pinellas County commissioner, told the council. "If you approve this, you are condemning us to a new vision of St. Petersburg. All the new development will be at least 180 feet tall and we will have a certain future in downtown of concrete canyons."
Council member Gina Driscoll, who voted against Bezu, called it a "shrunken version of the original" that didn’t respect the character of the Flori de Leon or the pedestrian-friendly feel of the neighborhood.
"Our walkability score downtown is 91, anybody else would be jealous of that," she said. "We have that for a reason and it’s not for buildings like this."
Voting with her were Steve Kornell, Lisa-Wheeler Bowman and Darden Rice, who said "zoning does not guarantee a beautiful building, beautiful architecture or compatibility."
But council member Charles Gerdes, voting with Amy Foster, Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari, said developers should be able to rely on zoning and land use laws in drawing up their plans.
Gerdes drew jeers from the crowd, which included many Flori de Leon residents, when he added: "I think actually that this new building and this architecture will make the Flori de Leon more special, will make it stand out."
Among the nearly three dozen speakers only about five supported Bezu. Among them was agent Beth Silverman of Benoot Realty, which will handle sales for the tower.
"New development is a key part of our future," she said. "The demand is strong; the construction will stand the test of time. This project meets the demands of the market and the city."
But opponents noted that more than 1,500 people had called or emailed city council to urge denial of the project. Said Jane Murphy, who came from Ohio:
"I just can’t imagine why these (20) units are so important that you’d ignore the pleas of current residents."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.