Lake Morton Neighborhood Dodges Higher Buildings

Homeowners in the Lake Morton historic districts have succeeded — so far — in fighting proposals to allow taller apartments and condos near their one- and two-story homes. 

City commissioners today approved an ordinance that allows multi-family residences of up to 55 feet in certain zoning districts. But before they passed Ordinance 18-044 unanimously, they took a separate vote — also unanimous — to ensure it didn’t apply to historic districts.

The height limit remains 40 feet in South Lake Morton, East Lake Morton and Biltmore-Cumberland, but it is raised to 55 feet on property zoned MF-12, MF-16 and MF-22 in other neighborhoods between I-4 and the Polk Parkway.

Still, there’ a chance that taller residential buildings may soon be allowed in some targeted portions of the historic districts closest to downtown — north of Palmetto Street in Dixieland and in parts of the “Garden District,” an area east of downtown Lakeland between Walnut Street and Main Street.

The shaded portions are zoned for offices and would be eligible for mixed-use buildings that include residential of up to 70 feet. Properties with green hashes are currently undeveloped.

City staffers have prepared a separate ordinance (18-045) that designates several blocks north of Palmetto on both sides of Florida Avenue — where commercial, office and rental property dominates — for apartments up to 70 feet tall. That ordinance is scheduled to be discussed by the commission on Aug. 6

In addition, commissioners said today that they’d like a similar measure allowing taller residential buildings in parts of the Garden District.

Julie Townsend, representing the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, praised the commission’s action after today’s vote, but said she’ll be watching the Garden District issue closely. Buildings as tall as 55 feet might be appropriate in some spots, but not all, she told commissioners this morning. After the meeting, she said the neighborhood association is skeptical about allowing 70-foot buildings in the Garden District.

Before Garden District building heights are brought up again, city staff will probably conduct a street-by-street review to target specific areas where enough vacant land is available to accommodate larger structures, City Manager Tony Delgado told The Ledger.

Today’s vote to exclude the historic districts holds a certain irony. The building height issue was prompted when ex-City Commissioner Edie Yates pushed for greater density in neighborhoods close to downtown, including historic areas. Her view: Developing high-rise apartments and condos close to downtown combats urban sprawl and accommodates both Baby Boomers and Millennials looking for smaller accommodations within walking distance of the city center.

South Lake Morton, East Lake Morton and Biltmore-Cumberland are the three historic districts that are affected by today’s vote. The other historic districts — Dixieland, Lake Hunter Terrace, Beacon Hill and Munn Park — contain no multi-family zoning, according to city planners.

Before voting, commissioners noted that they had heard from many Lake Morton residents who pleaded their case passionately and eloquently.

Today’s staff presentation on building heights:

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Another land-use issue at today’s meeting also involved nearby residents opposed to a proposed change, but in that case the neighborhood residents walked away disappointed by a 6-1 vote.

Only Justin Troller voted against an ordinance that will allow Valiant Products to expand its manufacturing capacity in a facility north of Memorial Boulevard and just east of Kathleen Road.

Nearby residents of Webster Avenue and Omohundro Avenue signed a petition opposing two measures that will allow limited truck traffic in their neighborhood to serve a manufacturing plant.

Before the vote, Valiant President Bob English said his time as a Polk County commissioner (2004-2012) made him sympathetic with the commission’s difficult choice: “It’s a hard job being a commissioner, and it’s especially hard when you have to decide on these land-use cases. On one side you want to promote economic development. But on the other side you want to serve a person’s right to live in their home in a safe and peaceful manner … Our plan, I think, improves the quality of the neighborhood. I don’t think it detracts from it.”