ST. PETERSBURG — Reversing its earlier decision, a city panel has given thumbs up to Bezu, a controversial 19-story condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg.
On Wednesday night, the Development Review Commission agreed the $11-million project met city requirements even as opponents continued to blast it as incompatible with the historic Flori de Leon apartments next door.
"Obviously I'm thrilled and look forward to creating a great new building," Michel Regignano, one of the developers, said after the 4-3 vote. "It certainly has been a hard road forward."
William Herrmann, a Flori de Leon resident who spearheaded opposition to Bezu, said he intends to appeal to city council.
After the council and commission rejected initial plans, Regignano's team cut Bezu's height from 300 to 180 feet and reduced the number of units from 29 to 20. Team members repeatedly told commissioners that they had worked closely with city staffers to make the slim, contemporary tower more compatible with the Flori de Leon, a 75-foot-high Mediterranean-style building where baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig once stayed.
"Obviously this is a much different application than what was before you originally," Craig Taraszki, the developers' attorney, told commissioners.
But the city received some 700 emails from opponents, with two dozen appearing in person to lambast Bezu on Fourth Avenue NE as a "monstrosity," a "needle-nosed high-rise" and a "sheer wall devoid of character."
Most of the speakers were from the Flori de Leon and nearby townhomes. However, Erica Rintoul, who lives in another part of the city, said she felt compelled to speak because she had "a crush" on St. Petersburg and saw signs of rampant development similar to those in Seattle, her previous home.
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"The charm of (Seattle) isn't going away but it doesn't have the feel it once had," she said. "My biggest fear is that it is going to happen here."
As they discussed Bezu, commission members initially sounded as if they would again reject the project.
"What I see here is a complete lack of human scale," said John Barie, looking at a rendering that showed Bezu still twice the size of the Flori de Leon. "It's a purely modernist building that ignores its neighbors."
"It's an attempt to put a lot of building on a very small site," Chuck Flynt said.
Another commissioner, Matt Walker, expressed surprise that the developers were able to gain a large amount of square footage by agreeing to add $82,000 in public art — shown on the rendering as what appeared to be a giant metal flower.
"Eighty thousand dollars worth of public art for 15,000 square feet seems way out of whack," Walker said, adding that the new design of Bezu "looked exactly the same" as the original one, only smaller.
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But commission chairman Richard Doyle, who strongly opposed the initial plans, said he questioned whether much more could be done to change the condo tower.
"How much lower can we make it go?" he asked. "Does it have to be the height of the Flori de Leon? Obviously, it's going to be larger."
With that, Doyle and three other commissioners voted in favor of Bezu and the project moved a step closer to reality.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-864. Follow @susanskate