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City review commission rejects St. Petersburg apartment tower expansion

Commissioners said they regret previously supporting the building, formerly known as the Bezu and the Blue Lotus.
Developers of what was originally called Blue Lotus, a proposed apartment tower, are now looking to increase the number of residencies. The project continues to be criticized as out of keeping with the next door Flori de Leon apartments.
Developers of what was originally called Blue Lotus, a proposed apartment tower, are now looking to increase the number of residencies. The project continues to be criticized as out of keeping with the next door Flori de Leon apartments. [ Rendering by Architectonics as submitted to the City of St. Petersburg ]
Published Jul. 25

ST. PETERSBURG — Developers of a proposed $15 million, 18-story downtown apartment tower hit a new roadblock this month when a city panel unanimously shot down its request for an expansion.

Formerly known as the Bezu, and before that, the Blue Lotus, the project on Fourth Avenue N. has been mired in dispute since its introduction in 2017. Opponents from the adjacent historic Flori de Leon have criticized the tower, now named the Julia, as too tall and modern for its surroundings.

Developers previously went before City Council members in June with the same expansion request. New plans would add a carousel parking structure and increase the Julia’s number of residences from 20 to 36, and they would be rentals instead of condo units. The building’s height and footprint would stay the same.

Acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, council members approved the modifications, despite neighbors’ impassioned public comments that the Julia was incompatible with the seven-story, Mediterranean-style Flori.

Related: St. Petersburg apartment tower wins approval despite simmering dispute

But at the July 6 Development Review Commission meeting, members agreed with concerned neighbors. Commissioners, most of whom are experienced in architecture, engineering, and land use, deemed the tower too big for its site and incompatible in scale and style with its historic surroundings.

Developers needed both the commission and the agency’s approvals for the new plans to move forward. They appealed the commission’s decision last week, according to Elizabeth Abernethy, director of planning and development services. The appeal is planned to go in front of City Council on Aug. 18, according to Craig Taraszki, a lawyer representing developer Driven Ziggy LLC.

The city’s site plan approval for a 20-unit building also expires in October, Abernethy said, but developers can file for an extension.

At the meeting July 6, Taraszki noted prior approvals from City Council members and the commission for the project.

“The commissioners expressed disdain for the building aesthetics, height and mass, yet they are unchanged from what was previously approved,” Taraszki wrote in an email on Friday. He argued that nothing presented at the meeting provided “rational grounds to disturb the prior” approvals from the commission or City Council members.

But some commission members said they regretted their 2018 decision to OK a scaled-back version of the tower and wouldn’t support a unit expansion now.

“They’re trying to stuff too much stuff into a small bag,” commissioner Charles Flynt said, describing the site as “dysfunctional.”

Commissioner Matt Walker, who previously supported the 20-unit tower, said that he “almost immediately started questioning” his vote.

“Now I drive down Fourth Avenue N. everyday to go to work and I pass that vacant lot,” he said in the meeting. “And I’ve tried to visualize that building on that lot, and I physically can’t do it. I’ve regretted being that fourth vote more times over the last four years than I could ever convey.”

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“I wish we could defeat the whole thing (today),” Commissioner Darren Stowe added.

When it came time to vote, one by one, each commissioner said no. Flori residents in the audience erupted in applause. One pumped her fist in the air.

Flori resident William Herrmann, who has spearheaded opposition to the proposed development since 2017, described the moment as “incredible.”

“We were able to show the defects,” he said. “And seven professionals said, ‘This thing doesn’t work.’”

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