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The northern shore of Lake Wire – between Lawton Chiles Middle Academy and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – is set for explosive growth in the next year with two new lakefront apartment complexes planned. The City Commission on Monday green-lit a zoning change for one property and up to $775,000 in infrastructure reimbursements for the other.
Mayor Bill Mutz praised the projects on Monday, saying the city is “in a crisis for finding tasteful multifamily housing and increasing density in our downtown area.”
The commissioners voted 5-2 to change the zoning of 401 W. Peachtree St. from commercial to multifamily residential, clearing the way for a planned 32-unit project on the site.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden launched a last-minute bid to delay the vote, in hope of finding a way to save a red brick home-turned-restaurant on the site that has been vacant since Zohra’s closed in 2011.
Attorney Tim Campbell stressed that the 1925 structure is not protected by any historic designation and the company that owns it has a legal right to demolish it under the existing zoning. But he made an offer: “The property owner is willing to allow the house to be relocated from the property, as long as it’s at no cost to the property owner … and as long as someone is willing to do so and can complete the relocation within four months.”
Next door, the defunct Lake Wire Retirement Center at 321 W. Peachtree St. is set to be demolished to make way for “Peachtree Flats” – an 84-unit market-rate complex with a two-tier parking structure.
The two properties are in the Downtown West area, which includes Bonnet Springs Park, the former Florida Tile site, Lake Beulah and Lake Wire. It is currently the subject of a strategic action plan by the Downtown Community Redevelopment Authority, which is expected to be completed by early summer 2023.
Of the two projects, Peachtreee Flats is much further along.
“They are ready to break ground,” said Valerie Ferrell, manager of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The project, currently under site plan review, will feature a four-story, multifamily complex with a two-story parking garage and a swimming pool.
When proposing the project, the developer asked the CRA for a 75% tax increment financing abatement for 10 years. The CRA advisory board didn’t want to set a precedent by granting such a long term, so it only approved five years. The proposed project-specific investments effectively bring the CRA’s contribution up to the same amount the developer originally requested.
Commissioners unanimously approved reimbursing the developer $775,000 for infrastructure improvements, including:
- Three-phase primary power extension from southwest corner of George
Jenkins Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the subject
- Underground stormwater detention
- Street lighting
- Sidewalk and crosswalk upgrades
- Street-side landscaping and irrigation
The funding will also help pay for demolition of the former Lake Wire Retirement Center, which has asbestos in the facade and will require extensive remediation.
According to Seniorcare.com, the center had a capacity of 44 residents. An inspection on June 4, 2021 said there was peeling paint, dirty and mildewed bathrooms, and the carpet in the hallways was worn, tattered and stained. It closed on Aug. 12, 2021, the same month Lake Wire Apartments LLC bought it for $800,000.
Despite their age, demolition of the cluster of three buildings – built in 1930, 1959, and 1960 respectively – was met with only shoulder shrugs.
Lake Wire Apartments
By contrast, plans to tear down a 1925, 3,344 square-foot home and an adjacent 1,150 square foot guest house on the other lot has historic preservationists crying foul.
Madden and Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley voted against changing the zoning. Madden wanted to table the vote until something could be done for the home. McCarley was concerned about the home and an apartment building contributing to the already clogged traffic during school drop-off and pick-up for Lawton Chiles Middle Academy.
The home is known as the Emory Bryant House. In May 2002, the property was rezoned from low-impact office to pedestrian commercial to allow for the conversion of the former single-family home into a Zohra’s restaurant, operated from 2006 until January 2011. The building has been vacant since the restaurant closed that year.
At some point, someone moved to place the home on the National Register of Historic Places, which would protect it from bulldozers. But the application, which city officials found, was apparently never submitted. The owner is within his legal rights to tear it down, several city officials noted.
Attorneys for the developer, Greg Wilkerson of Tampa, said he has been in talks with Lakeland’s most notable historic preservationist, Gregory Fancelli, about moving the home – as Fancelli did with the Tudor house in 2014 and several other bungalows in recent years.
However, moving the red-brick structure might be a Herculean task because this home is not raised on cinderblocks and easily placed on a trailer for moving. Instead it was built on and attached to a concrete foundation. Fancelli, the grandson of Publix Founder George Jenkins, said moving it is cost prohibitive, with an estimated price tag of $200,000.
Reached on vacation in Africa, Fancelli said he has met with the home’s owner, Jason Lewis, to see if they could trade properties. Fancelli offered him the land north of the Lakeland Police Department, where he has had plans to recreate the long-gone Hotel Thelma.
“Lakefront is too important for him,” Fancelli wrote, adding that Lewis has been nice to deal with, dating back to when he moved the bungalows along Orange Street. He “and I have similar goals, but he has no appreciation for Lakeland’s past. The Emory Bryant house is built by the same architect that designed the Old Lakeland High School nearby and many courthouses in Georgia.”
Fancelli said Lakeland is the target of outside developers because land is priced comparatively lower than Orlando or Tampa and now building apartments in either market yields similar returns.
“This is another example of city failure in protecting its historic assets,” said Fancelli, who has been a longtime critic of Mutz and the planning and zoning board. “The whole West downtown/Lake Wire area is a failure of city urban planning and development over the past 30 years. Poor urban planning shouldn’t be allowed because ‘Gregory will move a buildings and create another win-win situation.’ Maybe we’ll come up with something, but it is annoying.”
Fancelli said – and Mutz acknowledged – that Mutz played a minor role in the sale of the property when Zohra’s owner asked Mutz for a realtor recommendation. Mutz sent him to Saunders Group realtor David Hungerford, who arranged the sale to Jason Lewis. According to Polk County Property Appraiser’s Website, it sold in October 2021 for $650,000.
“The house should stay on the lake,” Fancelli said.
Prospect Lake Wire
Meanwhile, on the west side of Lake Wire, construction began in early February on “Prospect Lake Wire” a mixed-use development with 630 apartments and 30,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space on the former Florida Tile Brownfield site.
The project will be constructed in three phases. The first phase, with 300 multifamily residential units and 15,000 square feet of retail space, is expected to welcome its first residents in mid-2024.
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