DUNEDIN — After countless discussions over nearly two decades, city officials expect to see a development project take shape that they call the catalyst for the east end of town.
City commissioners unanimously — and enthusiastically — approved the design concept May 20 for a mixed-used project on about 4.3 acres of land at Main Street, Milwaukee Avenue and Skinner Boulevard.
"This property, most of it anyway, has been off the books for almost 20 years. Because we have taken that much time trying to figure out what the right project is for this," Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said.
She said the impact the development will have for the city beyond its taxable value.
"I’m talking about the economic driver business value to our downtown and how it will spur other businesses to pop up heading eastward, and that's what we desperately need," she said.
Other the past several months, several city boards, such as the Architectural Review Committee and Local Planning Agency, have also approved the Gateway development design plans.
Some residents have spoken in favor of the project. Objections to the project as a whole have been minimal, if any.
On several occasions, officials have referred to the vacant property as a dust bowl.
Commissioner Jeff Gow noted there have been other uses of the property.
"For anybody who thinks it's always been green space, it really hasn't. This is a project that been vetted forever and a day," Gow said.
The Gateway Dunedin development project is estimated to cost $30 million and will generate about $228,000 annually in tax increment financing revenue over a 10-year period.
The project has had a lot of public scrutiny, Commissioner Moe Freaney said.
"I think has been out there and that certainly is important because it's a huge, huge project for our community," she said.
Commissioners said that the developer, Joe Kokolakis, has a proven track record, naming projects such as the Artisan Apartment Homes and Nature's Food Patch on Douglas Avenue.
City Commissioner John Tornga said commissioners all look at commitment.
"And you (Kokolakis) certainly live here, and you certainly walk here, and you certainly drive here, and you certainly own here, and you certainly cover all elements that we ever asked for," he said.
He also said that from an architectural standpoint, Kokolakis has done a great job.
The height of two buildings proposed, four stories, has been discussed at length.
Bujalski said that the buildings are compatible to others in the nearby area, noting that there nine-story and four-story buildings.
"If you look at what's there, I think it's unfair to say to somebody, 'You can't do what everybody else has done,'" she said.
Deborah Kynes had similar comments.
"I feel that it is within sync with height of the surrounding institutional uses, Mease Hospital and Mease Life," she said.
At City Commission's first hearing on the design review May 6, City Economic and Housing Development and CRA Director Bob Ironsmith said that lot of planning has been involved with the project. "Mr. Kokolakis has spent considerable dollars working with staff to come up with a unified development plan," he said.
The project consists of a four-story mixed-use building and 17,572 square feet of ground-floor restaurant, retail uses and food hall and parking space. The upper three floors will have 81 apartments, a swimming pool and other recreational amenities.
A four-story boutique hotel with 79 rooms, underground parking, meeting space and a swimming pool also is planned along with 11,574 square feet of public promenade space and surface parking.
"When you are looking to revitalize an area, a hotel is one of the best uses you can have because it is what we consider a captured market," Ironsmith said. "People are going to stay at the hotel and guess what. They are coming downtown to eat and to shop," he said.
The food hall is going to have event space, Ironsmth said.
"It certainly going to give us a leg up compared to some of the other cities and presence in the north county to have this event space," he said. "It could be used for weddings, graduation, what have you."
City commissioners also are pleased that that open green space will be provided on more than a half acre that's part of the project.
"With that beautiful old banyan tree," Kynes said.
At the May 6 meeting, Kokolakis spoke at length about the architecture and other features of the project.
"I do believe we have gone through the process. We've had citizen input meetings. Not one citizen — and it was zoom, so it was easy — got online to complain about the project," Kokolakis said.
He said his mother isn't the biggest fan of the architectural style, which is fine.
"But my mother is not the one who is investing tens of millions of dollars into this project. And to invest that kind of money, you need a certainty, you need a market analysis and you need to know that it's a place that people want to go," he said.