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Will luxury apartments in South Tampa house drug-dealing ‘undesirables’?

Some City Council members rebuked opponents to a proposed luxury apartment complex for Beach Park, when opponents said it would draw criminals and impact the character of their neighborhood.
Tampa City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes said this week he was disturbed by comments made by Beach Park residents opposed to 252 apartments proposed for the neighborhood.
Tampa City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes said this week he was disturbed by comments made by Beach Park residents opposed to 252 apartments proposed for the neighborhood. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Jun. 4
Updated Jun. 6

TAMPA — George Chiang used to live in a luxury apartment before he moved to the Beach Park neighborhood.

During the several years he rented a $2,400 a month penthouse in Channelside, Chiang said, he came to realize that his luxury apartment complex had many drug dealers.

The 292 units proposed for 5426 Bay Center Drive in Beach Park, billed Crescent Communities as “luxury” apartments filled by empty nesters and professionals, threatens to have the same problem, Chiang said.

“You would simply not believe how many drug dealers live in these luxury apartments,” Chiang told council members Thursday via Zoom during the council’s meeting. “That’s an element that these luxury apartments bring into the neighborhood.”

Chiang’s comments were echoed, without the explicit language targeting outsiders, by some other opponents, who also voiced concerns about traffic, crowded schools and clogged evacuation routes.

That line of argument didn’t please council member Luis Viera.

“I was amazed by some of the words used, and I’m a little upset,” said the normally even-keeled Viera, who has represented North and New Tampa since 2016. “Saying that this would increase drug users, dealers and apartments ... disturbs me. You talk about undesirables? That is undesirable in a land-use case. Go on the merits. Go on the facts.”

City Council member Luis Viera, during a 2020 council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center.
City Council member Luis Viera, during a 2020 council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Council member Charlie Miranda echoed Viera’s concerns, saying that he hoped the speakers hadn’t meant to come off as they did.

Council members unanimously approved the rezoning request — a scaled-down version from previous iterations, which had included 450 units, a much larger, 11-story parking garage and few amenities.

The nearly two hour hearing was the latest flash point between South Tampa residents and some environmentalists and city planners, developers and other residents looking for apartments.

So far this year, the City Council has stalled some developments south of Gandy Boulevard, after residents complained about increased traffic and strained resources.

Related: Tampa mulls temporary halt on development south of Gandy

City planners say those concerns are exaggerated, and the new developments won’t endanger residents fleeing hurricanes or overburden schools.

Not unlike a similar spat in St. Petersburg, concerns about housing in a growing city have increasingly come into conflict with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which has warned of the risks of building in the coastal high hazard zone. Mayor Jane Castor has said she is also concerned and has directed staff to study changes in zoning and land-use regulations as the city grapples with climate change, rising seas and increased flooding.

Related: Tampa considers new rules on development in coastal high hazard areas

But the language and images offered by some Beach Park residents reflect what some developers and consultants have said may lie behind much of the opposition to apartments in South Tampa: a strain of not-in-my-backyard thinking that appears to stray into a desire to keep “undesirables” out.

Dave Mechanik, a longtime Tampa land-use attorney who represented Crescent Communities, the apartment company, said as much Thursday.

If the goal is more affordable housing, he said, council members should approve the project. If they didn’t, he reminded them, Randy Coen, the developer’s transportation consultant, had a 2018 approval from the city to build 158 more apartments.

Paula Perry, a Beach Park resident, said the new plans still threatened the neighborhood. She said the project simply wasn’t compatible with the waterfront neighborhood on the western edge of the South Tampa peninsula, just south of Interstate 275.

John Dingfelder, the council member who has championed a proposed “moratorium” on new rezoning requests for multi-family projects in South Tampa, voted to approve the proposal, but did so “sadly.”

Related: Tampa City Council pumps brakes on apartment moratorium

But he said council members shouldn’t put too much weight on inappropriate comments by residents concerning their fears of their potential new neighbors.

“I’ve learned to filter out the silly stuff,” Dingfelder said. “Drug use and the other NIMBY stuff.”

Chairman Orlando Gudes had a different reaction.

“I was very disturbed by some of the words that were used that refer to people,” Gudes said, adding he was curious if the uproar would have been the same if the project had been owner-occupied condo towers.

To hear the argument of keeping certain people out of certain neighborhoods was a “strange thing,” said Gudes, the council’s only Black member, who has consistently supported more affordable and workforce housing options in Tampa.

The project’s rezoning had been delayed four times since January, and the developer has dropped all of their proposed waivers.

The apartments would now have to conform with the Westshore Overlay planning district and would not get breaks on parking spaces, loading spaces or signage, Coen said.

Those were all resident concerns, he said.

“We think we are doing what the neighborhood is asking to be done,” Mechanik said.

The second and final vote on the project will be July 15.

Correction: Randy Coen is a transportation consultant with Crescent Communities. An earlier version of this story misspelled his last name and gave an incorrect role.