City Denies Lake Miriam Apartments in 5-2 Vote

The Lakeland City Commission voted 5-2 Monday afternoon to deny Publix and a partnering developer a zoning change that would have allowed them to build a 211-unit apartment complex along Lake Miriam Drive.

The commission cited a massive change in the square footage of impact, along with adding transportation impacts to an overcrowded road that is “already failing.”

Mayor Bill Mutz and City Commissioner Chad McLeod were the two commissioners who were in favor of green-lighting the controversial project that has been discussed for months by the planning and zoning board, along with the city commissioners.

“It’s like trying to hold a 4×8 sheet of plywood against a tsunami,” Mutz said of any efforts to hold off developers. “I do believe — and I know this is not a popular opinion — I do believe the apartments are the right solution for that location.”

Mutz and McLeod also pointed out that if a 24-hour gas station and convenience store wanted to open on that location, there is nothing the city commission can do to stop it from happening since the site is already zoned for commercial uses.

“That’s just a fact … We don’t have any opportunity to engage in what goes there otherwise,” said Mutz, adding that he rides his bike through the Lake Miriam shopping center several times a week and so he is intimately familiar with the area. Under commercial zoning, he said, ”There will be high traffic, there will be brighter lights … I’d much rather put in something that provides people to have some place to live in Lakeland.”

McLeod said the developer has a right to build something on that property. “I think there are many uses that would be more intense,” said McLeod. “We may not have a voice in what is approved.”

The vote came following a presentation by the developer, Preferred Apartment Communities of Atlanta, along with lengthy comments from about a dozen residents opposed to the project.  No resident spoke in favor of it.

Elise Batsel

Preferred Apartment Communities attorney Elise Batsel outlined changes to the proposed community the developer had made following a contentious April 4 City Commission meeting. Those changes included:

  • Reducing the number of apartments from 244 to 211;
  • Eliminating four-story buildings in favor of all three-story buildings;
  • Keeping the number of parking spaces the same, which exceeds the mandatory amount by 56 spaces;
  • Widening sidewalks from five feet to eight feet for pedestrian and bicycle use;
  • Noting the reduction in units will result in fewer daily trips to and from the proposed community.

Batsel, an attorney with the Tampa law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, cited legal precedent that the proposal aligned with the city’s comprehensive plan for development, noting that there was commercial property to the north and west of the site, along with two homes that had been turned into businesses on the other side of Lake Miriam Drive, including Grayson’s Dance Studio.

Preferred Apartment Communities officials also pointed to two other apartment complexes that Lakeland allowed to be built next to single family homes – St. Luke’s Ministry Apartments near Emma Street and The Park at Palazzo on Lakeland Hills Boulevard.

Batsel said homes to the south and east of the site would see a buffer of trees, shrubbery and a lake, all of which would have blocked vehicle lights and street lights. In addition, widened sidewalks would have kept pedestrians safe, including students attending nearby Lakeland Highlands Middle School, she said.

But Zachary Jefferson, 18, told commissioners about being hit by a car on Lake Miriam Drive when he was 13 years old, walking home from school. He crossed the street in front of his home and a driver ran over his foot.

“This one time, the day before my birthday, someone let me go,” Jefferson said. “An impatient person, they cut and hit me.  So that’s an issue.  That’s why they have a crosswalk (now).  Of course, you’re going to have your rush hour. It’s still going to be packed and going to be worse than it already is.  It’s better to leave it as it is.  There’s plenty of traffic.  More students are going to end up getting hit if this happens.  It’s a possibility … It’s just too dangerous.”

Linda Bagley Wiggs submitted her comments via video because she had a scheduling conflict. She is married to former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs.

“Two hours of public comments [at the April 4 meeting] did not say, ‘Just take off one story and then we’ll be happy,’” said Wiggs, noting that the people who would pay the going rate for a Class A apartment development were not going to take a public bus or ride bicycles to Dixieland or downtown.  

“We put a lot more in our comprehensive plan that (talks) about quality of life and being consistent and congruity with neighborhoods,” Wiggs said. “We can orange pick what we want to make an argument … This makes absolutely no sense it does not fit.  Let’s go to envisioning what we want.  There are other possibilities for this land.  This is not us.  We are Lakeland, Florida. Protect us, city commissioners.  Be brave and deny.”

Jeff Cox detailed Facebook analytics to discuss resident sentiment. He said 66 people were in favor of the apartment complex, 114 were indifferent and 2,109 were adamantly opposed. He said Preferred Apartment Communities is owned by Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust Inc., which has $300 billion in assets and manages 80,000 units nationwide.

“How much do you think a New York-based REIT cares about Lakeland?” Cox said and then noted Lakelanders’ aversion to taking a bus or biking to work. “By show of hands, who rode their bike or took the bus here today?”

Laughter then filled the commission chamber when only Commissioner Stephanie Madden raised her hand.

Catherine Rideout pointed out that property values would plummet in the neighborhood.

“Everyone’s talking about traffic, let’s talk about property values,” Rideout said.  “It’s not compatible. If you want something compatible, put in single family homes or a luxury condo complex.  The property values generate property taxes.  The property values are going to go down if you put in an apartment complex there.”

Bill Wheeler told commissioners that his family moved to Lakeland in the 1890s. He pointed out that Lake Miriam Circle, located across the street from the proposed development, has about three dozen homes and residents find it nearly impossible to turn left onto Lake Miriam Drive.

“They’re virtually held hostage already,” Wheeler said.  “The Lake Miriam corridor affects things from South Florida Avenue to Lakeland Highlands Road.  “No one I’ve talked to or seen on social media have been in favor of it other than those who stand to make money off of it”

Jerry Reynolds said he has lived in Lakeland for 72 years and in the Lake Miriam area for 44 years. His grandfather was born in Lakeland in 1879. Reynolds worked for many years for the city as the finance director. He said he remembers when downtown had become a ghost town, as businesses moved to shopping malls north of downtown and government entities tried to attract business back to the area north of Lake Morton and west of Lake Mirror.

“They did such a good job developing the city it’s booming — people want to live in Lakeland. There’s a quality of life,” Reynolds said. “I would say Lakeland no longer needs growth at any cost.  Lakeland’s infrastructure has not been able to keep pace.  Streets that were once residential are becoming way overcrowded.  Edgewood, Cleveland Heights Boulevard, South Florida Avenue and, yes, Lake Miriam Drive are backed up at certain points of the day.  Lake Miriam is backed up from South Florida Avenue to Lakeland Highlands Road.  I feel like I’m taking my life in my own hands to cross over Lake Miriam to get to South Florida Avenue.  I have concerns about the safety of children going to and from Lakeland Highlands Middle School.  I see kids walking across intersections up and down that road.  Young kids – very young kids. I think we need to consider those kids who live in those neighborhoods and play in those neighborhood.”

Commissioner Phillip Walker said he would be voting his conscience and hoped his colleagues would as well. “I could live with my conscious – not that this is not lawful,” Walker said.  “I am saying everything lawful is not expedient or helpful.”

Commissioner Madden also talked about the legality of Monday’s vote. “Often we make those kind of votes just on overflowing sentiments from neighborhoods.  Days like today, we are restricted legally — it’s not just on sentiment. It’s a quasi-judicial role and we can be sued … my words will be used against me in a court of law, potentially,” said Madden, pointing out that people were threatening to vote her out of office. “That would be the least part of my rationale today.  I live in this city and drive on these roads … For me, as one of seven, I don’t feel like I can, in good conscience, add more development on a road that is failing.”

She acknowledged that the developer had made modifications to their proposal based on concerns the commission and neighbors voiced in April. But she pointed out that widening Lake Miriam Drive isn’t on the city or county’s to-do list.

“Why would anyone want to build more residences … onto this road that’s failing?” she asked. “What are the mistakes we’ve made collectively as a commission, as a staff, as a school board?  We have developers who can’t develop this land for mistakes that are not their fault.”

And she reminded her colleagues that in 1973, when Publix Supermarkets developed what was then the Food World shopping center, Publix promised it would be at least 400 feet from the nearest resident.

Gregory Fancelli
Fancelli

Gregory Fancelli, the grandson of Publix founder George Jenkins, was in the audience Monday and sided with the area residents against the proposed apartment complex.

“There is a document from 1973, based on an agreement my grandfather made with the residents, that there would be a buffer zone between residences and the shopping strip,” Fancelli said in a text message to LkldNow.  “That same buffer zone is where the … developer wants to build.”

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley pointed out that the owners have a right to develop the property and neighbors might like even less what could come without any say from the city commissioners.

“It will not come before this body or for citizen input (and) will be commercial,” Roberts McCarley said.  “If this is denied, a WaWa could go there or something that has 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with light, and noise.”

Following the vote, the commissioners also had to approve the rationale for their decision; they included two ways in which they feel the residential rezoning would be less appropriate than the current commercial zoning, for which a gym was approved in 2018 but never built:

  • The apartments’ more than 83,000 square feet far exceeds the 39,797 square feet of space previously approved for retail.
  • The transportation impact fees of $717,611 estimate for the apartments are far more than the $383,325 estimated for the retail use, demonstrating greater impacts on the transportation system.

Following the vote, a Preferred Apartment Community executive attending the meeting declined to comment on whether the company is planning to take the city to court over the zoning decision.

Video: Presentations, discussions and votes on the Lake Miriam apartments

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning investigative reporter, author, and Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @KMooreTheLedger.