Planning Board Approves Lake Miriam Apartments; Next Stop: City Commission

Lake Miriam apartment site

The Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board today approved a controversial zoning change that will allow a proposed 244-unit apartment complex to be built next to Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center. Without the zoning change, 40,000 square feet of additional commercial space could be built on the currently vacant between the shopping center and Lake Miriam Drive.

Preferred Apartment Communities of Atlanta got the tentative green light for its proposed six-building complex on the 12-acre parcel.

The vote was 3-2. Board members Susan Seitz, Leigh Ann Lunz and Joseph Lauk voted yes, while Silvana Knight and Jeri Thom voted no.  Chair Lyle Philipson and member Ronald N. Roberts were absent.

The board endorsed the proposal without public comment. There was a Nov. 16 public hearing followed by two continuances of the required second reading. With the planning board approval now secured, the proposal advances to the City Commission for a final public hearing and vote, likely in March or April.

During the November meeting, eight residents spoke against the project and city officials reported receiving a spirited trove of negative comments. Area residents contend the project will make traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its South Florida intersection untenable — especially during morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up times at Lakeland Highlands Middle School. 

Attendance Tuesday, however, was scarce with only one hand raised to speak. The board opted not to take public comments.

Lunz said there was “no new information” presented during the discussion so, therefore, no need for a public hearing. “The public can comment when it goes before the City Commission,” she said.

“I’m absolutely disappointed,” said Linda Bagley Wiggs, whose husband is former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs, afterwards in the lobby with several residents who said they wanted to address the board. 

“What was the purpose of” the meeting? she asked. “They had their mind made up” and were going to approve it regardless what the public said.

City planners recommended adoption because the proposed apartments offer a net reduction of projected traffic impacts compared with the retail stores allowed under current zoning.

The site plan proposes four three-story, 43-foot-tall and two four-story, 54-foot-tall buildings offering studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on a parcel within a planned unit development submitted in 1993 by Publix Super Markets, which owns the property. 

The 1993 plan allowed up to 180,000 square feet of commercial space in the original shopping center and a 500-foot buffer between the center and Lake Miriam Drive. It has been amended several times, including 2002’s addition of 39,979 square feet of commercial space on the property along Lake Miriam Drive. 

An apartment developer is asking for the rezoning of land on both sides of the access road between Lake Miriam Drive and Lake Miriam Plaza.

In 2018, a 34,000-square-foot LA Fitness Center was approved but never built on the parcel. A traffic study by Wesley Chapel-based Raysor Transportation Consulting estimated the fitness 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 trips daily and 104 afternoon peak trips.

Lakeland Principal Planner Phillip Scearce said exchanging the 40,000 square feet of commercial development for apartments would generate 800 fewer external trips a day, including 72 fewer trips in afternoon peak traffic.

Scearce said the apartment developer also has modified its site plan to add a second egress from the complex into Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center and onto South Florida Avenue, which will allow residents to walk to nearby stores.

Editor’s note: The comments attributed to Scearce were incorrectly attributed to Community and Economic Development Director Brian Rewis in a previous version of this article.

Lakeland Transportation & Development Review Manager Charles Barmby noted Raysor’s traffic study “did not account for internal capture of residential and retail uses. That is important. The more we can get retail and residential in close proximity together, that lowers overall trip generation.”

Lauk noted lower traffic projections for residential rather than commercial development really don’t “affect much” since South Florida Avenue and Lake Miriam Drive “are failing already” in terms of how much traffic capacity they can handle.

“Had there not been entitlements” from the nearly 30-year-old development plan, “this may have been a different discussion,” Lauk said. “It comes down to what the previous entitlements were versus what they got today,” which is significantly lower than what it could have been.

Lunz and Seitz said if the city doesn’t approve the zoning change, it can be developed as zoned with little review.

“If we do not approve with conditions, we are looking at more commercial going in there and creating more problems,” Seitz said.

Thom questioned creating an egress through Publix’s Lake Miriam Square parking lot and said there were “four, five, six other sites” that she could think of that would be more suitable for the apartment developer’s proposal.

Knight questioned the notion that a 244-unit apartment complex would create fewer transportaiton issues than retail and said when assessing impacts, “To be fair, retail is not four stories tall.”

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

Area residents want that buffer restored but doing so would essentially make the proposed site plan unviable. Rewis said the buffer will include fencing, medians and trees planted along Lake Miriam Drive and losing the interior access linking the complex and the shopping center.