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Commission rules against St. Petersburg neighborhood in fight against affordable housing

Published Nov. 27, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — They filled the seats in the City Hall chamber, uniting to have their say about a nearby affordable housing project.

The word had gone out on Facebook about the 83-unit apartment complex that could rise in their Riviera Bay Civic Association neighborhood.

"Once the low-income tenants are moved into the project, the neighborhood should anticipate a substantial increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic, an increase in crime, and a substantial decrease in property values," wrote longtime resident Hal Hammer.

It was "critically important" that everyone attend the Development Review Commission hearing earlier this month, Hammer said.

Besides sending dozens of emails, many Riviera Bay residents spoke in front of the commission. Early during the Nov. 4 hearing, commission Chairman Chuck Flynt admonished the crowd.

"This is not a high school class or a middle school gym," he said, following guffaws that greeted an assessment that the project would not have a significant impact on their neighborhood streets.

Despite opposition, the commission ruled in the developer's favor. Hammer said the civic association, which represents more than 1,200 homes, is appealing the decision. The appeal will have to be made in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

"We're going to fight this to the fullest extent of the law," said Hammer, a building contractor and engineer who counts seven lawyers and a private investigator among his neighbors.

"We are not a bunch of doddering old fools. We're a group of conscientious professionals that resent the city steamrolling us in our own neighborhood, where we have a lifetime investment."

At issue is the plan by Blue Sky Communities, a 3-year-old Tampa company, to construct two apartment buildings at 10000 Fourth St. N, near Gandy Boulevard.

The area is zoned for 60 multi-family units, but Blue Sky Communities asked the commission for permission to build an additional 23 under an affordable housing program. Commission members approved it with conditions, including efforts to ease Riviera Bay's traffic concerns.

During the hearing, Laura Drach, a pediatrician at All Children's Hospital, made an impassioned plea.

"A child is going to die," she said, adding that the project was being planned at one of the most dangerous intersections in Pinellas County. "I work with a 70 percent Medicaid population. I know the day-to-day struggles of our low-income population."

Some families have only one car and would be forced to travel by foot across the busy intersection for necessities, Drach said. "We are trapping our most vulnerable population at the end of Fourth Street. ... Would you let your grandchildren, your children, your mother, your father, your grandmother or grandfather walk across this intersection on a daily basis?"

Shawn Wilson, president of Blue Sky Communities, which specializes in affordable housing and is renovating the Peterborough senior apartments in downtown St. Petersburg, said the Gandy Boulevard property is excellent for affordable housing.

"It's convenient for people who work in a number of employment centers, downtown, Carillon, MacDill Air Force Base. It's convenient for a lot of different people," he said.

The $11 million project is far from certain, though. Wilson said his company has applied for federal low-income housing tax credits to build the development. It could be another six months before he knows whether they've been approved. Without the credits, the project — to be known as 10K Apartments — will not be built, he said.

The commission's approval of the additional 23 units also is key to the project, Wilson said, adding that it takes the same effort to build and manage 83 units as it would to build the 60 that the city's zoning allows.

"Secondly and critically, in order to get the federal credits, the state just this year changed their application. The minimum is 75 (units) you can apply for," he said.

Hammer said he's exasperated by the commission's decision, considering Riviera Bay's strong objections. Additionally, he said, the city failed to follow its own rules, such as land use ordinances concerning "flood zone, coastal high hazard areas," when it approved the project.

"It is my belief that they completely ignored the law when they rendered their decision," he said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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