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Residents wary of St. Armands zoning changes

Commercial property owners say new building regulations would have a minimal impact on the character of the Circle, but traffic remains a source of anxiety for island residents.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. August 12, 2021
The St. Armands Business Improvement District commissioned renderings showcasing what a four-story building might look like if developed under proposed new regulations. File rendering.
The St. Armands Business Improvement District commissioned renderings showcasing what a four-story building might look like if developed under proposed new regulations. File rendering.
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Before fielding input on a proposal to revise St. Armands Circle zoning regulations to allow for taller buildings, hotel projects and more residential units, Geoffrey Michel encouraged the audience at a community workshop to push past any instincts to say “not in my backyard.”

“If I reflect back to John Ringling — he built a bridge so we could all come out here and enjoy it,” Michel said. “What if he said, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and he just wanted to keep this island to himself? … This is a place people want to be. Does that mean traffic? Of course it does. But anybody that’s concerned and angry about traffic, you weren’t the first one here, and you’re probably not going to be the last.”

Despite that plea from Michel, the owner of The Met and a member of the St. Armands Business Improvement District, traffic was a primary subject of discussion as residents weighed in on the prospect of new building rules on the Circle. On Aug. 5, the city hosted a virtual workshop about a series of proposed comprehensive plan and zoning code amendments the BID is calling Vision 2026.

Since last year, the BID has been developing a plan for rewriting regulations on the Circle to accommodate renovations and redevelopment in the commercial tourist district. BID board members have framed their proposal as a necessary step to ensure St. Armands remains a lively destination into the future.

“I would encourage anybody to walk the Circle and see the need for improvement, see the need for change,” Michel said. “Not aggressive, high-rise, corporate change but community change and community evolution.”

At the Aug. 5 workshop, architect Dan Lear outlined the provisions included in the Vision 2026 proposal. Key changes include:

  • Increasing the maximum building height on the Circle from 35 feet to 45 feet above base elevation.
  • Allowing hotel development at a density of 150 units per acre.
  • Increasing residential density to 30 units per acre.
  • Establishing design standards for buildings and streetscapes.

Although Michel attempted to present the changes as modest and in keeping with similar commercial districts in Naples and Palm Beach, the presentation drew questions and concerns from most residents in attendance. Chris Goglia, the president of the St. Armands Residents Association, said the group intended to survey its members to get more detailed feedback to the proposed revisions. On first blush, however, Goglia said he believed resident support would hinge on the BID’s ability to conclusively demonstrate that its plans wouldn’t exacerbate existing issues related to congestion.

“The traffic is crazy, and we wish that people would acknowledge that and work to solve that problem,” Goglia said.

Carl Shoffstall, the president of the Lido Key Residents Association, expressed concern about the traffic associated with a hotel on the Circle. Shoffstall said he believed the BID needed to do more research to justify the desired changes.

“I don’t see what the hurry is on this,” Shoffstall said.

During the presentation, Michel said the new building regulations could provide benefits for residents, including a higher-quality commercial district in close proximity to their homes. Two speakers at the workshop expressed their support for the proposal, including Lido Key resident Michael Polelle, who said he was excited about the prospect of the changes facilitating the construction of a convenience store on the barrier islands.

Polelle noted that traffic is attributable from trips starting on Lido and St. Armands, not just journeys from the mainland, and he said solving congestion issues was a separate task from considering the proposed changes.

“If this development doesn’t go ahead, we are still going to have traffic problems, and unless something is done, they’re going to get worse,” Polelle said.

The potential regulatory changes are being advanced separately from a proposal to build a hotel on the site of the Fillmore Drive parking lot, though that redevelopment concept was submitted by a group including BID board member Gavin Meshad. The City Commission is scheduled to discuss the future of the Fillmore Drive lot at a meeting Monday, Aug. 16.

Following the workshop, the BID intends to review the public input and finalize language for a formal application with the city. Depending on the text of that final proposal, the group could be required to hold another community workshop. According to Lear, any revisions would not go to the Planning Board and City Commission until the first quarter of 2022 at the earliest.

Although there were vocal reservations about the BID’s preliminary proposal at the Aug. 5 workshop, St. Armands property owners remain steadfast in their belief that changes are necessary to maintain the quality and character of the Circle.

“We can’t just leave well enough alone because well enough isn’t going to look pretty in 10 years,” Michel said.


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