OLDSMAR — A proposed apartment complex next to City Hall has sparked a fight over the future of this northeastern Pinellas County city of 15,000.
The showdown pits traditional foes. On one side are those who see greater population density as a way to revive and modernize downtown. On the other are residents who fret that the project will erase their city’s character. Some question the motives of those proposing the project, with one even bringing a complaint to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
It’s the latest chapter in Oldsmar’s struggle to remain competitive in a rapidly developing area, straddled between Tampa and St. Petersburg as both experience extreme growth. Neighboring downtowns in Safety Harbor and Dunedin have thrived while managing to welcome development that didn’t sacrifice the historic character of those cities.
The linchpin to Oldsmar’s revival is a stretch of city-owned blocks along Tampa Road and State Street. Anchoring the area is City Hall’s pale turquoise, blocky structure, several nearly empty lots and a white brick building occupied by the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.
For years, Oldsmar officials have sought to develop this land. The city created draft plans for the area, floating ideas like a park, a brewery and a coworking space. But earlier calls for development bids either didn’t return anything viable or saw developers back out, said City Manager Felicia Donnelly.
It wasn’t until late 2020 that city officials began discussing with Woodfield Development a proposal to build a five-story apartment building with 316 units, a wraparound parking garage, and retail on the ground floor.
The North Carolina-based developer’s proposal exceeded the area’s residential density of 30 units per acre — so the city opted to increase it to 65 units per acre.
The change would affect a 39-acre district designed largely for commercial business and retail. Developers still couldn’t bypass existing code on how tall or wide a building could be, and could only include the additional units if they met certain other criteria like offering retail space.
But concerned residents have packed Oldsmar City Council meetings, flooded Facebook groups, launched websites and taken to NextDoor. At one recent Council meeting, residents overflowed the chamber so that several people were forced to huddle in a bathroom to listen from overhead speakers as the meeting dragged into the next morning.
City officials say the density increase is the only way to attract a viable development option after years without growth — and that the move makes sense even if it wasn’t initiated by Woodfield. Earlier planning documents contemplated increased density, Donnelly said.
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The goal is to create an identifiable downtown in a city without one, Donnelly said, boosting economic development and creating an enjoyable space for residents and visitors.
Already, the density increase proposal has been given the go-ahead by Oldsmar’s City Council and the Pinellas County Commission. It will be finalized after a second public hearing in the city and state approval. But the fight over the area is still very much alive.
Both opponents and proponents are eyeing the city’s upcoming municipal elections Tuesday, in which Dan Saracki, who is opposed to the density increase and apartment complex, is vying to replace current Mayor Eric Seidel.
“Voting one way votes for the apartments, voting another way says we want to revisit,” said resident Pam Settle, a vocal opponent of the density increase and Woodfield proposal.
Many residents say the density increase is being rushed. They have concerns about traffic, noise and character. They question who might be profiting from the plan and whether the city is being transparent.
Opponents say Woodfield may be selling the city on a plan that isn’t feasible and will cause parking and traffic nightmares.
“They don’t plan, they don’t study, they just frivolously throw out stuff, and it’s dangerous and it’s expensive to us taxpayers,” said resident David McDonald, a former city planner in Pinellas County.
McDonald said he wants to make sure the development is done in a smart way, and he doesn’t trust that that’s what’s happening.
“Downtown Dunedin and Safety Harbor are booming on Friday and Saturday night,” he said. “They don’t have any five- or seven-story buildings. They have townhomes.”
Jason Sanders, chairman of the chamber’s board, has spoken in favor of the density increase. He wants to see a vibrant downtown and believes this move would make Oldsmar more attractive to developers. His business, PowerKleen, is in the district that would be affected by the density proposal.
City officials stress that no agreement has been reached with Woodfield yet. (In fact, Seidel said recently that he’d vote against Woodfield’s current plan, saying he wants a more public-facing park and wide sidewalks for cafes.)
Before any agreement is reached, traffic and impact studies and other details must be discussed publicly at multiple hearings, Donnelly said.
She said the city has done everything properly, pointing to a city website that lists 32 common questions about the project and their answers.
When officials realized a July 2021 planning board meeting was incorrectly advertised, the city redid the entire meeting, Donnelly noted. (At the first meeting, the planning board had voted against the density measure, but some members later changed their minds and the board voted for it in the redone meeting in October.)
“We wanted to be very careful in following all the rules,” Donnelly said.
Some residents are still suspicious. In 2021, Settle contacted the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s and Pinellas County Sheriff’s offices with a complaint about a possible violation of public meeting laws. The complaint went nowhere.
Settle, who has lived in Oldsmar for 13 years, said she plans to stay active either way. She hopes to be a voice pushing for a downtown design that creates a real sense of place, which she said apartments generally don’t do.
She said if the city is intent on building apartments, then they need to promise that money from any land sale to a developer will fund a park, or a community center, or something that will benefit the people. Otherwise, she said the city should go back to the drawing board.
“At some point, the citizens have to win,” she said.