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The Lakeland City Commission Monday green-lighted a land-use change and development plan to allow Mosaic Development to build a 252-unit apartment complex at the southwest corner of West Pipkin and Yates roads.
The 4-2 approval came after a public hearing that included little opposition, but despite concerns raised by dissenting Commissioners Sara Roberts McCarley and Bill Read about traffic and “urban sprawl” in rapidly developing Southwest Lakeland.
Under the approved plan, St. Petersburg-based Mosaic Development will build seven 43-foot-tall, three-story buildings on 17.2 acres at the West Pipkin/Yates Road intersection. It was approved unanimously by the city’s Planning & Zoning Board on Feb. 15.
The property had been zoned for commercial use, and an adjoining 1.5-acre parcel at the Pipkin-Yates corner under ownership of English Creek LLC has been set aside for commercial development.
It is the first of at least three large-scale apartment complexes likely to come before the commission in the coming months that, if approved as currently proposed, would authorize construction of nearly 1,000 multi-family units in Southwest Lakeland.
The votes for approval came from Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Chad McLeod, Mike Musick and Phillip Walker. Commissioner Stephanie Madden did not attend today’s meeting.
Mosaic was represented at the meeting by lawyer Elise Batsel and planner David Smith of Tampa’s Stearns Weaver Miller law firm. They told the commission that the 18.7-acre parcel was annexed into the city in 2001 and given a Neighborhood Activity Center land-use designation. It was originally envisioned as a shopping center with up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space.
But the commercial-zoned property failed to draw interest, especially after Publix received approval for its 31-acre Gresham Farms shopping center 2.4 miles west at West Pipkin and County Line Road, they said.
With Geico across the street and Lakeland Linder International Airport, industrial/manufacturing centers and a Polk State College campus all nearby, the site is better-suited for multifamily development, which area employers say is needed, they said.
In addition, the Mosaic reps and city planners said, residential development will reduce projected future traffic on West Pipkin, which is undergoing a $42-million widening project to be completed in 2023.
According to an October 2021 traffic study by Michael Raysor of Raysor Transportation Consulting, Mosaic’s proposed apartment complex and a prospective convenience store would generate 2,026 fewer daily trips than a 100,000-square-foot shopping center would.
Plus, they said, the Residential High (RH) zoning that would make way for English Creek’s 252-unit project is, at 14.6 units per acre, far less dense than the 75 units per acre permitted.
“Multifamily does provide the appropriate transition to single family (developments) to the south,” Batsel said
Smith said the complex will “cluster development to preserve wetlands and open space” with all amenities in the center of the complex. The southwest boundary — closest to single-family homes in Towne Park Estates — will have a 100-foot buffer, including a retention pond, and units facing that direction will not have balconies.
Under the plan, 300 feet of Yates Road as it approaches West Pipkin will be widened to four lanes with turning lanes to go east or west on West Pipkin. Improvements on Yates could allow drivers to find alternate routes south through Towne Park Boulevard, relieving pressure on West Pipkin, Smith said.
“We don’t expect too much traffic going down that road,” he said, noting the vast majority of traffic is “trying to go “east or west, there is really no need for them to go down through the community.”
But Towne Park Estates resident Stephan Gehler told commissioners more cars are already “speeding” through his neighborhood “out of Riverstone (subdivision) onto Yates” making “Towne Park Boulevard a raceway, a pass through” that could become an even more popular side route to employment and shopping on West Pipkin.
“The apartments there are nice, don’t get me wrong, but the traffic patterns … it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens,” he said, noting some Towne Park Estates residents want to “gate” their community because of traffic concerns.
Commissioner McCarley said she did not think a 250- to 300-foot, two-lane extension down Yates was adequate and raised broader issues not just with this multifamily development but others emerging in the area.
“When we are looking at our comprehensive plan, we are looking at avoiding urban sprawl,” she said, but with more people moving into the area, “more and more sprawl” is going to be the result unless densities are thinned back.
“The design is wonderful and the way we want to develop multifamily housing,” McCarley said of Mosaic’s proposal before suggesting the parcel could be better suited to single-family housing.
While nearby employers say affordable housing is needed for workers, “I don’t think that we can guarantee” locally employed people will be moving into Southwest Lakeland, she said, adding she fears such development will end up “pushing more traffic into Hillsborough County and I don’t want to become a bedroom community of Tampa.”
Read also commended Mosaic’s design but said, “Traffic is our biggest dilemma and I share Sara’s issues” with residential densities.
Read said his daughter and son-in-law work at Geico, which will soon see the West Pipkin Road office rise to 2,500 employees as workers return after pandemic-induced remote working. With 3,500 single-family homes planned of being built to the west, he didn’t necessarily buy into the claim that employers in the area are requesting multifamily housing.
Actually, Lakeland Transportation & Development Review Manager Charles Barmby said, there will soon be 4,000 employees at Geico and the apartment complex is “well-positioned” across the street to be available for workers there and is an appropriate use along the soon-to-be improved and widened West Pipkin Road.
“We don’t have that balance between single-family and multifamily in that area,” he said, with 3,500 single-family homes being built or planned.
Lakeland “went several years without a plan or concept” for a new multifamily project, Barmby said. At one point, the city was “looking at impact fee incentives for multifamily developments,” he said.
“The market has shifted. We are seeing a lot more multifamily” in the area, not just within the city but in the county, Barmby continued, noting among reasons multifamily has “picked up” is “because very low vacancy rents and high rents. What we are seeing is the market speaking” to investors and developers.
The job of city planners, he said, is to funnel that market interest into areas where there are major intersections, near employment centers and schools “to make sure housing options are available.”
Barmby said the project has “good roadway capacity” and will have “good transit access” while being “less intensive than commercial. Its trip generation is less than what is already allowed. We are comfortable with what is proposed here.”
Real estate agent Richard Dempsey, who said he “aggressively marketed” the parcel for two years without “one inquiry for any type of retail use,” called the approval a “win-win situation for the landowner, the developer and the community.”
But yes, he said, these are hard decisions, especially with more people coming — and fast.
“We live in the center of the universe,” Dempsey said. “I have clients from Nepal, France, South America — they are all coming here.”
MORE COVERAGE: The Ledger
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