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One developer, two Pinellas County land deals raise residents’ eyebrows

Pinellas County paid $540,000 for one parcel that is still sitting vacant 16 months later.

Lealman, a blue-collar community just outside of the St. Petersburg city limits, is one of the poorest areas of Pinellas County. It’s also one of the best-located.

The county designated Lealman as its first Community Redevelopment Area, saying its closeness to downtown St. Petersburg, the beaches and major highways offers "significant opportunity for reinvestment.'' Much of the investment, however, has come from the county. It has spent $1.28 million buying land for two affordable rental projects planned by Contemporary Housing Alternatives — a nonprofit company whose vice president is the son of longtime Assistant County Administrator Jacob Stowers.

Lealman residents, who think their opinions are often overlooked because no elected officials live there, say the projects are incompatible with the area and were pushed through with little notice. One of the projects, the 28-unit Greenway Lofts, received multiple variances that would increase the density yet reduce the required number of parking spaces.

"I understand we need low-income housing,'' said resident Lawrence Kerekes, "but they’re trying to stuff a pretty rotten project down our throats.''

Newsart graphic [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Even though the county bought the land for Greenway Lofts 16 months ago, Contemporary Housing Alternatives has not started work because construction bids came in much higher than expected. The land is sitting fenced and empty. In roughly the same time frame, a different developer started and completed an 80-unit affordable apartment community on county-owned land in Clearwater.

Contemporary Housing Alternatives has 14 communities in Pinellas. One of the lead people on the newest projects is Jacob Stowers, 36. His father was the company’s chairman from 2008 — two years after he retired as assistant county administrator —to 2014, when he returned to the $185,000-a-year job overseeing community planning and development for unincorporated areas of Pinellas.

Emails about Greenway Lofts circulated among county officials, including the elder Stowers. He said he "just forwarded those along'' and never discussed the project with others or with his son.

"It would be completely inappropriate'' he said.

Next month, Stowers, 77, is officially retiring — again. He and county officials say his departure has nothing to do with the land deals. However, the county is reviewing its procedures involving property purchases and potential conflict-of-interest situations.

"This was an opportunity to step back and say, ‘How can we improve our processes not only for the community but also our stakeholders,' '' said Tom Almonte, a new assistant county administrator who said he already has assumed Stowers’ decision-making duties. "We want everybody to know work is being done in a way that is transparent.''

Pinellas County paid $540,000 last year for this property at 4500 43rd Street N in Lealman for a 28-unit apartment and townhome project. Construction came in higher than expected, and work has not started. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

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Lealman is named for a former North Florida sheriff who moved to the area after the Civil War and began farming strawberries near Joe’s Creek. Annexations by surrounding cities whittled Lealman down to about four square miles, bounded by 34th and 49th Streets N and 40th and 62nd Avenues. Renters make up much of the population, and the median income is substantially less than for the county as a whole.

In 2017, Contemporary Housing Alternatives began considering a rental project in Lealman on what was then the Broach School, a private school for students who need personalized attention. Greenway Lofts would include market-rate townhomes plus affordable apartments in a three-story building. The project would occupy parts of two blocks.

On March 20, 2018, the county commission approved a zoning change to allow for 19 units.

A few months later, the younger Stowers appeared before the county’s Board of Adjustment seeking approval for 28 units —a “density bonus'' because 12 of the units would be affordable for people earning 60 percent or less of the county’s median income. He also sought variances to reduce the number of off-street parking spaces and to reduce setbacks from 25 feet to as little as 8 feet.

Despite just two weeks’ notice of the meeting, nearly 50 Lealman residents sent letters opposing the project. They thought the three-story building would be out of place in a neighborhood of small one-story houses and that the project overall would cause parking and traffic problems.

"I can tell you that no one in our area supports this project,'' Kerekes, one of the residents who attended the meeting, told the board. "...The problem with this plan is it is too high a density for our neighborhood.''

Stowers disagreed. "I don’t see how this project is going to bring down the development of the community,'' he said. "It brings up the community.''

Residents asked for a continuance to get more information on the project’s impact, but the board declined and unanimously approved the variances and density bonus.

"The problem is, there is a finite number of people out there who are willing to invest in certain development projects and their visions from what that looks like is probably going to be different from yours,'' alternate board member Michael Foley told the opponents.

In July 2018, the county paid $540,000 for the Broach School property. The school moved into the county-owned Lealman Community Center. Contemporary Housing Alternatives contracted with the county to lease the school property for 99 years for Greenway Lofts.

Construction costs for the project were estimated at $3.58 million. The bids came in at $4.86 million.

The Broach School sold its property in Lealman to Pinellas County, which is leasing the land to a company that plans apartments and townhomes on the site. The school now leases space in the county-owned Lealman Community Center. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

Joseph Lettelleir, president of Contemporary Housing Alternatives, said the strong economy had "dramatically’' pushed up labor and construction costs since the project was evaluated more than two years ago. "Additionally, the initial design proved more expensive,'' he said in an email.

The company is revising plans and looking for financing to make up the $1.28 million gap, Lettelleir said. County officials, who have met with him and the younger Stowers, say options include fewer features and amenities although the number of units likely would stay the same.

Kerekes, the Lealman resident, said his criticisms of the project proved valid.

"I heard that it’s on hold now because they can’t afford to build it even with this higher density,'' he said. "I don’t know where the heck they’re going.''

Pinellas County paid $740,527 in mid-November for this parcel at 3901 46th Ave. N in Lealman for an affordable community with 34 manufactured homes. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]

• • •

Despite problems with Greenway Lofts, the county recently spent $740,524 for a parcel in Lealman owned by a spin-off of Contemporary Housing Alternatives. The company wants to put 34 manufactured homes there in a project called Oasis Acres.

RELATED: Should Pinellas County pay $740,000 for this? Auditor concerned about a "windfall'' profit

Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke authorized payment although he raised questions about the deal, including whether there was a conflict of interest involving the younger Stowers and his father, the county official. Both said they never discussed the project but the county told Burke it plans to implement procedures to guard against conflicts.

Lealman residents say they knew nothing about the plan for manufactured homes until it was announced April 24 at a community meeting. As a former mobile home park, the property on 46th Avenue N already had the correct zoning, so there were no public notices or hearings.

New manufactured homes will be an improvement over decrepit old trailers. But Lealman residents say conventionally built homes would do more to upgrade the area in line with the county’s redevelopment plans.

"In that particular project, it’s an affordable option,'' Kevin Hayes, Pinellas’ deputy of appraisals, said of manufacturing housing. "With all the regulations on these things, they’re a lot more solid than they were 30 years ago. Yes, they will add value. How much value, it depends.''