DUNEDIN - After months of deliberations and public outcry against adding such a massive structure in downtown Dunedin, the latest iteration of the Courtyard on Main project received unanimous approval from the City Commission on first reading last week.
The project has been a source of controversy and consternation in the community for much of this year as local developer Arlis Construction worked to build a three-story mixed-use complex, complete with ground floor retail space, an underground parking garage and 18 condo units, on a vacant lot at 380 Main St. that is currently used for public parking.
However, after several significant revisions were presented to the Local Planning Authority last month, including reducing the overall building size by 20 percent and creating an outdoor plaza on the corner of Main Street and Douglas Avenue that will be dedicated for public use, the five city commissioners, as well as a representative of a key community group, expressed support for the project when the first reading of the agenda item was heard on Thursday, Sept. 21.
“I think there has been a major turnaround in this project and I approve going forward on the preliminary design,” Commissioner Deborah Kynes said.
“In my 33 years involved with the city, I have never seen the level of effort that went into getting community input,” Commissioner Moe Freaney added. “I am very impressed.”
What impressed officials so much about the latest version of the project was that representatives for the developer did something that apparently is all too rare in the industry today – they listened to the voices in the community and acted on their suggestions.
“Previously, this commission saw a proposal for a development on this site and expressed grave concerns, to say the least,” attorney Ed Armstrong, representing Arlis Construction, said. “And what this owner has done is carefully reflected upon the feedback from this commission, the community generally and the Local Planning Authority and we bring you tonight a very different plan that we believe is responsive to the concerns that we’re brought forward.”
Local architect Jim Graham, working with the Lunz Group to design the project, then went over a point by point breakdown of how the project has changed and how it now meets every design standard and building code set by the city.
“We did a two-month listening tour…and we talked to as many people as we could talk to in the downtown area,” Graham told the commission. “And what we got out of that is four main things we felt we had to have included in our overall concept of the project.”
Graham listed the four major points, which included reducing the overall mass of the building, adding more greenspace, making the building look like it’s not one big building but multiple structures with distinct features, and adding more color.
According to the latest designs and plans, those four criteria have been met, Graham said.
“This building is 20 percent smaller than the previous building,” Graham said, noting the current plan calls for 18,000 square feet of mixed-use space on the first floor, with 2,600 earmarked for a restaurant and 14,000 square feet dedicated to retail space. He added the building will meet the city’s 40-foot height restriction, not including parapets that can extend up to 8 percent above that level, according to code.
Graham also noted the building’s setback has been extended from the right of way to allow for the creation of the public plaza on the southeast corner of the property near the entrance to Pioneer Park.
“What we’ve done is taken that space and created a plaza that represents 14 percent of our site,” Graham explained. “In that plaza are six tables for the restaurant, but only 7 percent of the plaza is dedicated to the restaurant.”
He said he believes this area will provide an attraction that is unique to the downtown district. “This space is unique in the city of Dunedin. This place is created because of the city of Dunedin. It’s created because there’s a park in the city of Dunedin. It’s created because there’s this dynamic corner in the city of Dunedin, the heart of Dunedin.”
Graham noted the developer would soon be involved in discussions with city officials over the use agreement for the plaza, and he said the plaza, along with a courtyard that was moved from the apartment level to the ground floor so it could be used by the merchants as well as residents, combine to provide a generous amount of public space.
“We’re dedicating a quarter of the site to basically public, or semi-public, type uses,” he said. “So, we’re really opening it up to the public.”
Other new items of note for the project include placing planter boxes around the building on the second story that will provide greenspace as well as collect rainwater; the addition of more color variety and detailing on the building, giving it a less boxy and a more Spanish Mediterranean look. A soil sample was conducted that helped prove the 49-space underground garage is a feasible option for the project.
“We have done underground parking garages, probably 40 or 50 of them in the state of Florida, and the underground parking for this particular site is viable, it’s possible, and it can easily be done,” said engineer Mike McCarthy of McCarthy and Associates, a local firm that is also handling the underground garage for the nearby Artisan apartment project.
Graham later confirmed the garage would have a pump and generator to help remove any excess water that might collect in the garage in an emergency.
Following Graham’s presentation, it was the audience’s turn to speak.
But unlike prior meetings, there was very little public comment on the topic, and the remarks that were made by the leader of a dissenting community group were overwhelmingly positive.
“There are any number of members of Preserve the Vibe that have been aghast that something is actually gonna be built there,” Harry Steinman said of the 1,100-strong organization that was steadfastly opposed to the Courtyard on Main project. “I don’t see any of them here tonight,”
In giving his endorsement of the project, Steinman praised the developer for listening to the voice of the community.
“Our official position is the developer has created, I think, a template for how developers and the community might work together in the future,” he said, adding he wished the experience could be “cloned” and used in other development projects. “Given that they bought the property fair and square, and particularly have listened to people, we are enthusiastically in favor of this development going forward.”
The five commissioners agreed.
“I’m clearly in support of this,” Heather Gracy said.
“I think the applicant did a tremendous job … and I appreciate the project,” John Tornga added.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalksi had the final word on the matter.
“Today, to the best of my knowledge, I do feel this project meets the code,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I agree with or like all of them, but it meets the code.”
With that, the commission voted 5-0 in favor of the project.
A second reading on the item is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 19.