CLEARWATER — Skycrest residents showed up to City Hall recently and begged elected officials not to let a developer knock down an aging office building in their neighborhood and build a storage facility in its place.
Planning and Development Director Michael Delk advised the City Council to deny the zoning change from office to commercial, saying the storage project did not fit the character of the area, conflicts with the city's strategic plan and could be a blow to the historic and transitional neighborhood.
Economic Development Director Denise Sanderson warned a storage facility would produce about four jobs and $462,000 in taxable sales over 10 years, way below the predicted 210 jobs and $16 million in taxable sales from an upgraded office.
But in a rare split from staff's advice, the City Council this month voted 4-1 to approve it anyway, with council member Bob Cundiff in opposition.
The property's zoning change must now be approved by Forward Pinellas June 13 and the County Commission July 17 to take effect. But residents fear the damage has been done, that the project is a case study in how development interests are prioritized above neighborhood preservation in Clearwater.
"This implies plans don't matter, that anybody can come in, get the right attorney, and a developer can pretty much go wherever he wants," said Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition president Karen Cunningham. "We don't see this happening in affluent neighborhoods. We see this happening in older neighborhoods."
In its prime before the recession, 300 S Duncan Ave., just east of Crest Lake Park along Rainbow Drive, was a healthy office center, according to DeeDee Cornelius, president of Rental Houses LLC, which owns the building. Today the office is only 43 percent occupied with 22 tenants, Cornelius said.
Over three years on the market, Cornelius said prospective buyers came and went, realizing it would take too much money to renovate and be difficult to recruit tenants.
The company negotiated a $2.7 million sale, half the original asking price, to StorCon Development contingent on the project's zoning change being approved by the city and county, Cornelius said. StorCon is proposing a 76,000-square-foot self-storage facility with 700 units spread across four buildings.
Attorney Brian Aungst Jr., representing the developer, called the storage project an "objective improvement" over the dilapidated building that is not turning a profit.
The area to the north of the property across Rainbow Drive is all residential. Gulf to Bay Boulevard, one of Pinellas County's most used thoroughfares, runs to the south and is a strip of commercial properties. There are commercial properties directly to the east on the other side of S Duncan Avenue, but the stretch is an anomaly — properties east of Duncan are residential along Rainbow Drive and commercial almost only along Gulf to Bay to the south. Properties to the west are zoned office.
The 300 S Duncan Ave. property's current office zoning is unrealistic, Aungst argued, and the market proves it: offices to the west are single-tenant and less than 5,000 square feet. Two nearby are vacant.
"This, if anything, shows you the market is not supporting an office use in this area," Aungst said. "It certainly is not going to support the redevelopment of a Class A, 75,000 square-foot-office that was developed in the early 1970s. This parcel will never be redeveloped as a large, primary employment center office."
But Clearwater long range planning manager Lauren Matzke said the property is "a strategic location" for office development because of its closeness to downtown and the Gulf-to-Bay corridor.
Its site on S Duncan Avenue serves as the dividing line between commercial and office uses, she said. Matzke said the few commercial properties to the east are under-utilized or vacant, showing "there is not a need for additional commercial designated property in this area."
The change of zoning to commercial would also allow for much higher intensity uses in the future like a retail plaza, vehicle sales and restaurants.
StorCon has submitted a site plan for the storage facility, but "that is no guarantee of what will eventually be developed," Matzke said. "Once the property is zoned commercial, staff cannot otherwise restrict the uses if the commercial district permits them."
StorCon co-founder Jonathan Dorman said the site lends itself to self storage because it has a long driveway from Gulf to Bay leading into the property. The plan also proposes about a 60-foot landscaped setback facing the houses on Rainbow Drive and a 25-foot setback along Duncan Avenue.
"All we do is self storage," Dorman said. "We are not speculators. We have never flipped a piece of property. We have never put a piece of property under contract that we don't intend to develop as self storage."
In making his case to the council, Dorman also had one of the city's most successful land use lawyers countering staff's recommendation to deny. Aungst has a near-perfect record for winning government approvals, and has also embedded in the city through a slew of community service roles, task forces and volunteer boards. Of the roughly 50 hearings he's argued to government bodies since 2011 for developments, grants, contracts and other projects, he's only had one denied, according to his estimates — a four-unit condo on Island Estates in 2015.
But in voting for the zoning change, Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell, who owns D-Mar General Contracting and develops residential and commercial projects, countered residents' concerns, saying said a storage facility would be a better use than the dilapidated office building.
Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who owns Palm Pavilion restaurant and inn on Clearwater Beach, said it was not an unrealistic request since there are commercial properties nearby. Council member David Allbritton, elected in March, is a retired contractor and was a member of the Community Development Board that approved StorCon's zoning change request in December.
"In my heart I think this is going to be an improvement for this neighborhood," Allbritton said.
Mayor George Cretekos warned if the developer gets approval from the county but does not follow through with promises, like building a perimeter wall and buffer from Rainbow Drive, there would be consequences.
"If it doesn't look like what is being proposed, we're all going to be marching," Cretekos said.
But Skycrest Neighborhood Association President JoAnna Siskin said she wished elected officials would listen to residents' concerns rather than deciding what is best for them. She fears the quiet neighborhood, with about 900 mostly older homes, will begin losing its character.
"We are not a warehouse district or an industrial park," she said. "It's not just about us. If they can put one in an older neighborhood, are we the beginning of where they want to put storage facilities?"
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.