ST. PETERSBURG — In a victory for residents of an historic building where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once lived, the city's Development Review Commission unanimously rejected plans for a soaring condo tower next door.
"I think it's a terrific tower architecturally," commissioner Calivin Samuel said, but he and other commissioners agreed that the 300-foot-high Bezu would be dramatically out of scale with the neighboring Flori de Leon and other nearby structures.
As soon as the vote was taken Wednesday evening, opponents — many of them wearing Stop Bezu buttons — burst into cheers, applause and even tears.
"I am elated. I am emotional now," said Joan Caldwell, a resident of the 90-year-old Flori de Leon, once home to Ruth and other New York Yankee greats who held spring training in St. Petersburg.
Todd Pressman, representing developer Michel Regignano, said the decision will be appealed to the full city council.
"The DRC is stopping progress of the wonderful economic development of downtown St. Petersburg," Pressman said.
But some opponents said projects like Bezu risk turning St. Petersburg into a mini-Miami or Manhattan.
"This little paradise that is our city is about to become another conglomeration of stone and concrete monoliths," said Jeanne Reed, a former New York City resident now living at the Flori de Leon.
The city's planning and zoning staff had recommended approval of Bezu, a 23-story, 29-unit condo tower at Fourth Avenue NE and First Street. The five-story base of the building would include parking for 60 cars, shielded from public view by architectural grating, vegetation and works by local artists. Atop the massive base would be a slim 18 -story residential tower.
"This will be needed housing in a tight market," Pressman said, referring to the high demand for condos on and near popular Beach Drive.
Opponents, though, said Bezu would be far too big for its narrow parcel. And at 300 feet it would be four times as tall as the 75-foot Flori de Leon a few yards away.
"Allowing the developer to shoehorn a big box (onto the site) and put on top of that a huge anemic tower and then put the whole hot mess next to a historic building is not in the public interest," said William Herrmann, a charter boat captain who lives in the Flori de Leon.
Herrmann noted that the Flori de Leon, built in 1927 and now a co-op with residents 55 and older, has no central heat or air-conditioning. If windows were kept open in cooler months, as they usually are, exhaust fumes from the Bezu's garage would waft in and cause potential air quality and health problems.
Other Flori de Leon residents cited safety hazards with cars exiting Bezu's garage onto First Street N and turning onto busy Fourth Avenue, a main thoroughfare into downtown St. Petersburg off 1-275.
"This an extremely dangerous corner," Elizabeth Bell said, citing a recent accident with injuries involving a flipped vehicle.
Amy Black, who lives in the two-story Mount Vernon condos nearby, stressed that area residents don't oppose new construction but want it in keeping with the existing character of the neighborhood.
"We welcomed Rowland Place as a stellar example of good development,'' Black said, referring to a new midrise condo building on Fourth Avenue NE. She said residents also liked the four New York-style brownstones proposed by a previous owner of the Bezu site.
The clamor over Bezu was reminiscent of that over another recent condo project: Bliss, an 18-story tower that critics also said was too big for its Fourth Avenue NE site. Opponents of Bezu noted that it would take up a much larger area of its site than Bliss does of its parcel.
"There is way more at stake here than Bezu," Herrmann told commissioners. "If this applicant is allowed to build more than double what is standard, what hope do you guys ever have of saying no?"
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin at tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate