- November 26, 2021
Ahead of an Aug. 5 community workshop that will outline a series of potential land use changes for St. Armands Circle, commercial property owners on the barrier island are focused on preempting any fears about the nature of the proposal.
Since last year, the St. Armands Business Improvement District has worked to develop a vision for the future of the Circle — and a framework for rewriting city regulations to facilitate desired changes. Members of the group said they want to promote quality redevelopment in the commercial tourist district and encourage a mix of uses that ensure stores and restaurants have a steady customer base for years to come.
The BID has focused on some specific provisions it hopes will achieve those goals. The group is applying to amend the city’s comprehensive plan to permit taller buildings on the Circle, increasing the height limit from 35 feet to 45 feet. Board members want to see a hotel on St. Armands and more residences in the Circle, so they hope to revise the zoning code to allow hotels and increase the maximum density in the area.
Before any of those changes could take effect, they must earn approval from the City Commission — likely at a series of public hearings next year at the earliest. But the Aug. 5 workshop is one of the first opportunities the general public will have to share their thoughts on the BID’s plans for St. Armands. In the run-up to that meeting, BID board members have indicated their belief community feedback could have a meaningful effect on the prospects of success at higher levels.
As a result, the BID spent time at its July 14 meeting discussing consultant-guided messaging surrounding the proposals. Architect Dan Lear, who has worked with the group since October 2020, outlined plans to present the changes under the banner of “Vision 2026.” The name is designed to signify the medium-to-long-term time frame along which the group anticipates new regulations will translate to tangible changes in the built environment.
“(The goal) is to represent it more as what it is, which is a vision for the future, rather than quick changes for particular people, which it’s not,” Lear said.
Board members suggested the height increase was a modest change in line with building standards in other commercial districts in similar communities, such as Naples. BID Chairman Geoffrey Michel encouraged Lear to seek out relevant reference images and resident testimonials in hopes of providing comfort to people on the barrier islands who will be in attendance at the workshop.
The St. Armands Residents Association has not taken a formal position on the proposed changes, stating in an email that it anticipates members of the organization may have conflicting perspectives on the desirability of new regulations on the Circle. Still, association President Chris Goglia encouraged members to take the opportunity to watch the workshop and share their thoughts if they feel strongly one way or another about the revisions.
Both the St. Armands and Lido Key resident associations have announced plans to survey their members about the proposal. On a personal level, Goglia said he believes the city should preserve the unique character of St. Armands and strive to make sure the area is accessible to residents citywide.
“Any proposed commercial development should demonstrate how it addresses those two things, and should prove that it won't further exacerbate the existing problem with in-season traffic capacity and pedestrian safety,” Goglia wrote in a July 22 email to St. Armands Residents Association members.
BID board member Mindy Kauffman said maintaining the feel of St. Armands was important to property owners, too.
“We want to keep the charm of the Circle, not become something we’re not already,” Kauffman said. “We just want to enhance it.”
So far, it’s unclear whether all stakeholders see the proposed changes as adhering to that mission.
At the July 14 St. Armands Business Improvement District meeting, board members focused on one idea they anticipated could be particularly contentious: the development of the city-owned Fillmore Drive parking lot.
In May, the City Commission heard a proposal for the construction of a mixed-use complex featuring a hotel and grocery store on the 1.98-acre site. The proposal came from JWM Management, a company whose vice president is BID board member Gavin Meshad.
Although the proposed comprehensive plan amendment would increase the theoretical maximum allowable height on the Fillmore site to 45 feet — a change necessary to accommodate JWM Management’s concept — BID board members attempted to put some distance between their desired changes and the potential private development of the parking lot. Unlike most of the other affected properties, the Fillmore lot is zoned for governmental use, which carries a more restrictive height limit.
If a project wanted to build up to 45 feet on the property, the developer would have to get the city to approve a rezone to the commercial tourist zoning designation. That process would require its own community workshops and public hearing before the city could authorize any building plans. As a result, BID board members said they hoped the public would consider the broader land use changes on their own merits without fixating on the future of the parking lot.
“Anything that happens with Fillmore has to go all the way through the process, so you guys can all come out (then) with your guns loaded and your pitchforks out because that’s a whole separate process,” BID board member Tom Leonard said.
A majority of the City Commission wanted to further explore JWM Management’s proposal, directing staff to work with the developer on next steps to facilitate a project. On July 14, City Attorney Robert Fournier shared a memo with the commission regarding a series of legal topics related to the potential sale and development of the site.
City officials and residents have discussed the possibility of soliciting competitive bids for the development of the site, but Fournier said the city is under no obligation to put the property on the market before partnering with a builder.
Fournier said the question of whether to seek additional offers for the land is a question of policy for elected officials to decide.
“Certainly, if the City Commission’s paramount goal is to get the highest sales price possible to the exclusion of all other factors, then it would be sensible to undertake a competitive selection process,” Fournier wrote in the memo.
Fournier also said the temporary elimination of some parking spaces may require the city to produce a documented plan to recover lost revenues, which could be incorporated into the sale price for the land.