Lake Miriam site

Lakeland city commissioners today got their first official look at a controversial zoning proposal that would allow a 244-unit apartment complex to be built next to the Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center.

Preferred Apartment Communities of Atlanta got the tentative green light for its proposed six-building complex on the 12-acre parcel when the city’s Planning & Zoning Board on Feb. 15 approved its zoning change and site plan in a 3-2 vote.

PAC’s proposal will get its first reading at Monday’s City Commission meeting, meaning there won’t be a binding vote or a public hearing, but residents can address the proposal in the public comment portion at the end the meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. in City Hall.

The proposal’s second reading, which will include a public hearing and a vote, is scheduled for March 21. 

And that March 21 public hearing and final vote was definitely on commissioners’ minds as they discussed the proposal during today’s agenda study session.

Their dilemmas: Trying to ascertain how much discretion they have in denying the project because of traffic concerns in the context of state law that prohibits them from doing so, and explaining that the proposal is actually a “downzoning” that reduces future road impacts by exchanging residential development for 40,000-square-feet of commercial “entitlements” that the Publix-owned site now has.

“The overarching issue is this development generates less traffic than what is already allowed,” Lakeland Transportation & Development Review Manager Chuck Barmby said. 

Residents contend traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its South Florida intersection is already untenable, especially during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up times at Lakeland Highlands Middle School. 

Adding an apartment complex on the vacant land to reduce future traffic impacts doesn’t make sense to most residents. But the issue is not about what is there now, city officials explain; it’s about what could be there in the future — and residential development generates less traffic than retail does.

“It is a unique situation. We are essentially looking at a downzoning by going from retail to residential. From a traffic standpoint, adding retail atop retail” generates significantly more traffic volume, Barmby said. “The issues you will hear about on the 21st is the relationship between retail allowed today and the residential” proposed and “expected future traffic, the difference between the two.”

The issue is further complicated by the term “failing road,” Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said. Drivers might perceive the a road is failing, but government officials have to abide by specific metrics that determine if a road can be classified as failing.

“When I try to explain that to the public, they get glazed over. We need to make sure the public understands that,” she said.

Editor’s note: The previous two paragraphs have been revised to clarify the point that Commissioner McCarley made

When assured traffic analyst Michael Raysor of Wesley Chapel-based Raysor Transportation Consulting would be at the March 21 public hearing, McCarley asked, “Will he have a translator so the public can understand what he is saying? … It has to be communicated in a way as simple as possible in plain language.”

PAC’s site plan proposes four three-story and two four-story buildings offering studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on a parcel within Publix’s original 1993 Lake Miriam Shopping Center planned unit development.

The city’s planning staff created a presentation summarizing the proposal for the commission. See it here or at the end of this article.

That 1993 plan allowed up to 180,000 square feet of commercial space. It has been amended several times, including 2002’s addition of 39,979 square feet of commercial space in the area where the apartments are now planned. 

In 2018, a 34,000-square-foot LA Fitness Center was approved but never built for the parcel. Raysor estimated with the fitness center, the shopping center would generate 3,224 car trips per day, including 276 during afternoon peak. 

Working off the 2018 study, Raysor forecasts a 244-unit apartment complex would generate 1,328 daily and 104 afternoon peak trips. Exchanging the 40,000 square feet of commercial development for apartments would generate 800 fewer external trips a day, including 72 trips less in afternoon peak traffic, the analysis contends.

Since filing its proposal, PAC has modified its site plan to add a second egress from the complex into Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center and towards South Florida Avenue. The developer also added a pedestrian passage onto the sidewalk in the part of the complex closest to Lakeland Highlands Middle School.

Part of the vacant land where the apartments are proposed, Looking northwest from Lake Miriam Drive
Another view of the shopping center’s south exit to Lake Miriam Drive

Since it received approval from the Planning & Zoning Board, PAC has further amended its plan to include an on-site transit hub near the Lake Miriam Drive-South Florida intersection and will submit a proposal to Polk County and the Florida Department of Transpiration for a “driveway permit” to build another egress into the shopping center in tandem with Publix’s 2023 plan to reconfigure the shopping center’s parking lot and renovate its grocery store.

Barmby said with county and city impact fees, the Lake Miriam/South Florida intersection could be improved with additional turn lanes but power poles prevent expanding Lake Miriam Drive beyond two lanes farther east. 

An additional benefit of exchanging retail for multifamily residential is it generates more in impact fees, he said. “We’ll be able to show that as well,” he said.

Explaining traffic studies that analyze future development impacts is confusing enough, but conveying the reality that commissioners’ discretion is handcuffed by 2011 and 2013 state laws is equally confounding, commissioners contended.

The Community Planning Act of 2011 dramatically scaled back state oversight in development review and weakened proportional share requirements for new development.

The bill defunded the state’s Department of Community Affairs, which ensured uniform standards and congruity, including traffic, in comprehensive planning between counties and cities. 

Two years later, House Bill 319 further revised allowable provisions for local governments implementing optional “transportation concurrency” requirements in comprehensive plans, essentially prohibiting local governments from denying new development because of impacts generated by existing development.

“We cannot use current road status” as a reason for denial, Commissioner Stephanie Madden said, noting it’s hard to justify “why (developers) have, by right, the opportunity to build on failing roads.”

Barmby said Publix’s expansion of commercial footage on the parcel “made all the sense in the world in 2002. The thing we ran into is the property did not develop and then the laws changed. Back then, local government was in a stronger position” in reviewing development proposals in the context of traffic concurrency.

“We had much stronger leverage from a local standpoint,” he said, noting the 2011-13 revisions in state development statutes were fostered by the 2007-09 housing crash and subsequent recession.

“It was recession time. Part of it was to try to allow for additional development,” he said. But now, as development across the state is booming, “It hindered our ability to make concurrency decisions. The rules of the game changed.”

“We already have failing roads. Why are we in this position?” Madden said. “We’re looking for best possible scenario for what we have been given. This is not a win for residents.”

Commissioner Bill Read said despite the state law restrictions, he believes the commission has discretion in at least one area.

“We’ve got a few options” in looking at a plan to “reduce density,” he said. “That is flexibility that we do have — reduce density.”

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