The Tampa City Council has yet to hear a compelling reason to allow a private social club in a residential neighborhood off Bayshore Boulevard, and a final meeting on the matter scheduled for Thursday offers the council a chance to show the diligence that the public had a right to expect at the first hearing last month.
This decision is not a referendum on the owner; it doesn't revolve around historic preservation or some pillowy perception of the city's self-worth. The only issue is whether the project is the right fit for a neighborhood that has said en masse it doesn't want it.
The council voted 4-2 last month to advance requests for a rezoning and an alcohol permit for a 2.6-acre piece of property that owner Blake Casper wants to convert into a private social club. Casper, who founded the popular Oxford Exchange near downtown, wants to build the club and a bed-and-breakfast on the so-called Stovall property, on the south end of Bayshore near Gandy Boulevard.
Casper, who would also preserve the historic Stovall House, is widely praised by supporters of the project for his vision, attention to detail and commitment to preserving the city's architectural history.
Yet it's clear that the majority of residents near the site are not satisfied with several measures that Casper accepted to soften the impacts of the development. Casper pledged to keep virtually all traffic restricted from the side streets. The buffering exceeds city code. He would limit outside alcohol sales late at night, and allow amplified sounds outside only up to four times a year for special events. Casper has also made smaller concessions.
But he's also proposing an intensive use of the property, which would include a dining room, professional kitchen, bar, event space, pool and up to five-room B&B in what's now a solidly residential neighborhood. The developer and the city have also envisioned a path to approval that leaves many questions still up in the air.
If the club doesn't know how many members it expects, who can say if the 80 parking places planned are adequate? Beyond pledging to impose fines on its members, how could the club guarantee that visitors will not park in the neighborhood, when the public, after all, is allowed to park on city streets?
Is the traffic study — which was modeled after a health club, not a social club — relevant and the next-best model available? Why would deliveries be allowed from Bayshore when Bayshore is not a dedicated truck route? Giving trucks incidental use of Bayshore is one thing; it's another altogether to make that part of a business model.
The details matter because the question for council is whether the club would be compatible with the neighborhood it would impact. But council spent little time examining how any of these restrictions would be enforced. And while city staff found the rezoning request consistent with Tampa's land regulations, the council all but ignored a second staff finding that the request for alcohol sales was inconsistent. The club wants a waiver to allow alcohol sales within 50 feet of a residence, down from the 1,000-foot distance now in city code. The 1,000-foot distance seems overly suburban, but 50-feet is knocking on the door.
Residences and businesses have entirely different impacts, which is why zoning exists. And while council members often complain that they have little power under Tampa's strong-mayor form of government, one thing they do control is zoning.
Even after sitting through nearly six hours of testimony at the first public hearing in August, not one of the four council members who voted to move the project along felt compelled to explain his vote to the packed audience. When 1,000 people sign a petition, you owe them an answer.
It is rare that council reverses course on second hearing, but there's also a reason for two hearings, and for why decisions like this go to elected officials. The council on Thursday needs to show that it has thoughtfully considered the impacts and put the neighborhood's best interests above all else.