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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Balancing neighborhood character, new housing designs

The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa have plenty to offer millennials and young families, including beautiful parks, bustling bar and restaurant scenes and improving job prospects. One challenge is housing, much of it aging and small by comparison to the 3/2s of modern suburbia. Developers are eager to resolve the mismatch by building bigger, modern homes that can appear out of scale in established neighborhoods. As the Tampa Bay area evolves, urban planners should strive for a better balance between preserving the character of neighborhoods and encouraging a housing renewal that meets the needs of younger residents.

The growing pains are being felt in signature neighborhoods like St. Petersburg's Historic Kenwood and Snell Isle and Tampa's West Tampa and Seminole Heights. The Tampa Bay Times' Susan Taylor Martin recently reported on a rift in Kenwood, which boasts one of Florida's largest concentrations of craftsman-style bungalows dating from the 1920s. But many have just two bedrooms and one bathroom and cover a tight 1,300 square feet. In some cases, they are being replaced with much larger houses, offering more space and more amenities — and slowly altering the look of the neighborhood. Another common complaint on both sides of the bay: small homes on double lots being knocked down and replaced with two large houses with minimal setbacks. Neighborhoods need breathing room, and while maximizing size and density boosts developers' profits, it does not serve the greater community interest.

Design standards are more subjective and more challenging for city planners. In Seminole Heights, another bungalow enclave, residents objected to new homes popping up featuring "faux" porches — glorified front stoops that couldn't hold two rocking chairs. In Kenwood, boxy, modern homes don't blend in with the quaint bungalows. But one person's eyesore is another's dream home, and imposing rigid standards like those in deed-restricted subdivisions would be an overcorrection.

That's where codes and zoning come in. One builder's representative said in an email to St. Petersburg officials that it's not "the government's business to tell a family what size home they should have.'' Maybe not what size, but certainly where, and with reasonable conditions. When uniformly enforced, zoning preserves the integrity of neighborhoods by limiting home size, requiring setbacks from neighboring properties and providing incentives to make new houses fit in. St. Petersburg, for example, is considering sensible new guidelines that would limit home size but allow builders to exceed the maximum if they incorporate design enhancements that mitigate the "big box" feel of new homes. Those kind of incentives leave flexibility for people to build the house they want while having a positive long-term effect on how neighborhoods evolve.

Through smart investment in community amenities, Tampa and St. Petersburg have grown into thriving urban centers where more and more people want to live. The eagerness of developers to build attractive, spacious new homes helps revive communities, add local tax revenue and create safer neighborhoods. It's a great problem to have, but it's crucial that local governments provide steady oversight that preserves what is unique about each city while encouraging development of new, viable housing.