Hotly Contested Lake Miriam Apartment Plan Set for Tuesday Hearing

A controversial proposal to build 244 apartments next to the Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center goes before the Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board on Tuesday.

Atlanta-based developer Preferred Apartment Communities wants the city to change zoning from commercial to residential on 12 vacant acres along Lake Miriam Drive that are currently part of the shopping center.

The developer maintains that exchanging 40,000 square feet of commercial development for the six-building residential project will reduce projected traffic impacts on Lake Miriam Drive and its intersection with South Florida Avenue. Traffic consultants and city planners agree.

Many area residents do not. Residents are expected to reiterate objections raised during a November public hearing on the proposal when the board convenes at 8:30 a.m. in City Hall.

The proposed apartments would span both sides of the current Lake Miriam Drive entrance to the shopping center.

City planners were scheduled to present recommendations at the Dec. 21 and Jan. 18 Planning & Zoning meetings but requested consecutive continuances, citing the proposal’s complexity and mounting opposition.

Tuesday, they will recommend the proposed zoning change from commercial to residential be approved. City planners say the proposed complex’s density of 20.21 dwelling units-per-acre is under the 22 units-per-acre cap in “an urban development area within a transit oriented corridor.”

Check the city staff report on the zoning request here or at the end of this article.

The developer’s site plan proposes four three-story and two four-story buildings offering studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on a parcel within property owner Publix’s original 1993 planned unit development.

The 1993 plan allowed up to 180,000 square feet of commercial space. It has been amended several times, including 2002’s addition of 220,000 square feet of commercial space. 

Area residents contend the project will make traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its South Florida intersection an even a bigger mess than it already is — especially during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up times at Lakeland Highlands Middle School. 

During the November meeting, eight residents spoke against the proposal. City officials at the time reported receiving more than 30 emails in opposition. 

Among those who objected privately was former U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, who has lived across from the shopping center for 25 years. 

By state law, roads must operate at service level D or higher for new development to proceed, he told The Ledger at the time, adding that Lake Miriam Drive is “a D-road” incapable of handling new traffic. 

Actually, according to a 2018 traffic study, Lake Miriam Drive is a “deficient” service-level E road, according to Wesley Chapel-based Raysor Transportation Consulting. The firm made that determination nearly five years ago when a 34,000-square-foot LA Fitness Center was approved for the site but never built.

Raysor President Michael Raysor told the board in November the proposed apartment complex would have no “material impact upon that deficiency” but, as a residential project, it would reduce traffic that would be generated if the PUD’s 40,000 square feet of commercial space was built out.

With the fitness center, Raysor estimated the shopping center would generate 3,224 car trips per day, including 276 during afternoon peak. The 244-unit apartment complex, Raysor forecasts, would generate 1,328 daily and 104 afternoon peak trips — 13% of total trip generation compared to “existing entitlements” in the original development plan.

Publix’s original 1993 plan set aside the “southern portion of the site east of the entrance drive” along Lake Miriam Drive as a 500-foot buffer. The 2002 PUD amendment trimmed that back to 75 feet. Area residents want that buffer restored.