LARGO — Dozens of neighbors concerned about traffic and compatibility hoped to stall a proposed 231-unit apartment complex along Eighth Avenue Southeast near Central Park.
Their efforts failed Sept. 2 as the Planning Board, acting in an advisory role to the City Commission, unanimously voted to approve a land-use change and a development agreement between the city and Belleair Development Group.
The Pinellas Park firm plans to construct a $60 million to $70 million multifamily complex on 15.46 acres of mostly vacant land adjacent to Largo Middle School along Eighth Avenue and Donegan Road.
According to a site plan, the proposal calls for five four-story buildings, a 30-foot landscaped buffer between the complex and single-family homes to the south, a 10-foot-wide multiuse path along both roadways, and a retention pond in the center designed to handle stormwater runoff.
A large portion of the property on the northwest corner of the site would remain green space, featuring a walking path, dog park, playground and shelters.
The developer is also seeking a density bonus by agreeing to set aside 30% of the units for affordable housing.
The complex would have one main access off Eighth Avenue Southeast, a secondary emergency access off Donegan Road, and 428 parking spaces.
All of those extra vehicles and the traffic they would create were the biggest concern for the neighbors of the project.
“As far as the traffic goes, it’s a nightmare here in the afternoon coming up Central Park Drive to East Bay Drive,” said Ed Quirke, who lives on Fifth Avenue. “And when the school lets out with the kids, it’s bumper to bumper on Eighth Avenue.”
He added that CSX railroad tracks also cut through the area and events at Central Park can cause congestion as well.
Residents also pointed out that the curved intersection of Eighth Avenue and Donegan Road was a hazard.
“When you have a complex as large as they’re proposing at that corner where the curve is, you’re just looking for trouble,” said Jocelyn Dunn, who lives on Seventh Avenue. “It is a very dangerous curve there.”
Carlos Yepes, owner of BDG, said he understands the concerns, which is why they are considering traffic calming measures, such as a roundabout at that curve.
Also, a large-scale traffic study is underway.
“Engineers will be looking at traffic counts and school openings, pickup times; all those things will come into play,” he said, adding that the study will be presented to city staff in the next few weeks.
Industrial or housing
The land is currently zoned for industrial uses and would need a land-use change to residential for the project to proceed.
Yepes emphasized to residents that the housing complex would be a far better fit than what he might have to build there otherwise, which could include a transfer station, hotel or other use.
“The property will be developed, one way or the other,” he said.
“But I think this is a less intensive use of the property.”
Some residents took those words as a threat, but Kevin Reali, an attorney representing BDG, said Yepes was simply stating that the firm’s options would be limited if the land use change wasn’t approved.
“The hardest thing to convey to the public is that the use that we’re proposing, even with the (density) bonus, is significantly, by multiple factors, less intense for traffic generation than the uses that can come in there if this development agreement and this map amendment don’t go through,” he said, noting that a transfer station or distribution center would have the highest interest.
Yepes said BDG is buying the property no matter what and it would be much easier to develop it with an industrial use. But that he thinks this is a better fit.
“Today, industrial is really hot in development and there is very little available today,” he said. “In fact, yesterday we were having the discussion, why are we doing this? Why don’t we just go industrial and don’t have to do any of this? And we really want to do this.”
The project has many more hurdles to cross and public hearings before BDG can start breaking ground.
The land-use change will need city, county and state approval, and the development agreement also will need City Commission approval in December.