Several Proposals Would Rezone Commercial Land to Residential

Several current land-use decisions facing the city of Lakeland involve turning property that was once intended for commercial uses into single-family or apartment communities. Planners say this both staves off future traffic impacts on already congested roads and boosts workforce housing that employers say is needed to sustain economic development.

For example, Lakeland city commissioners on Monday will consider a pair of commercial to high-density residential zoning changes for several small parcels within a 126-acre tract at the corner of Ralston and County Line roads originally platted as a shopping center within southwest Lakeland’s West Pipkin Road corridor.

In coming weeks, commissioners will also hear a request for a controversial commercial-to-residential zoning change for a proposed 244-unit apartment complex next to Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center, and from Mosaic Development for a 252-unit apartment complex at the intersection of West Pipkin and Yates roads, about two miles east of the proposed zoning changes at Ralston and County Line roads. (It’s item 5 on this agenda.)

Both zoning changes were endorsed by the Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board on Tuesday. They now move onto public hearings before the commission and binding votes. 

The Lake Miriam zoning change, approved in a 3-2 vote, is heavily contested, but Mosaic Development’s request was unanimously passed without comment. 

Mosaic Development is seeking multifamily zoning on 17.2 vacant acres at the West Pipkin/Yates intersection within an 18.7-acre parcel annexed into the city in 2001 and given a Neighborhood Activity Center (NAC) land-use designation. It was originally envisioned as a shopping center with up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

A  Residential High (RH) zoning would make way for a proposed 252-unit project called English Creek. RH zoning allows maximum density of 75 units per acre. English Creek’s proposed density is 14.6 per acre.

The other 1.5 acres will remain without zoning but under a Convenience Center (CC) future land-use designation, a precursor to specific commercial-use zoning.

Mosaic Development’s preliminary site plan outlines seven three-story buildings on the 17 acres with a 4,000-square-foot convenience store/gas station on the 1.5-acre section.

According to a February 2021 city planners’ analysis, when the NAC designation was applied in 2002, “The Yates Road/W. Pipkin Road intersection was envisioned as a strategic location for the future development of neighborhood-level retail … to support the long-term plans for residential development in the area.”

But after Publix received approval in 2020 for its 31-acre Gresham Farms shopping center at 5140 County Line Rd., about two-and-a-half miles west, “the market has shown little interest in developing a new shopping center at this intersection” and “it is not clear there will ever be sufficient demand to support another major activity center along the W. Pipkin Road corridor.”

The January 2021 approval of the Gresham Farms shopping center’s plan is what fostered the proposed zoning changes on the nearby Ralston Road properties — four parcels between 0.14 of an acre to 1.3 acres — shifting use from commercial to high-density residential.

City planners say commercial development, especially retail, generates more traffic than residential uses do. Placing residential zoning – even multifamily — on land reduces projected future traffic impacts, the planners argue.

According to an October 2021 traffic study by Michael Raysor of Raysor Transportation Consulting, Mosaic’s proposed apartment complex and convenience store would generate 2,026 fewer daily trips than a 100,000-square-foot shopping center would. 

Raysor also did the traffic study on the Lake Miriam zoning change, projecting that removing 40,000-square-feet of commercial space for the 242 apartments would generate 800 fewer daily trips.

Reducing future traffic by subtracting potential commercial development and replacing it with residential zoning on already congested roads may not make sense to some, but state law requires local planners project traffic impacts based on zoning “entitlements.” 

A zoning change that trims back those “entitlements” reduces future traffic counts and tamps down urgency in planning road improvements.

Of course, in West Pipkin’s case, that urgency has long since devolved into an emergency with the county approving a $42 million road-widening effort that began in January. Lakeland is contributing $6 million to the 17-month project, which will shut down parts of West Pipkin into fall 2024.

Mosaic Development’s proposed English Creek complex is within that 3.8-mile stretch of West Pipkin between South Florida Avenue and Medulla Road that is being widened to four lanes. The road-widening project outlines improvements at West Pipkin’s Yates Road intersection that include two westbound left turn lanes and a second eastbound right turn lane that transitions to a “merge” lane at Towne Park Boulevard.

“The density, as proposed, is well below the maximum allowed … and will provide a modest increase in density over the existing single-family subdivisions located to the east and west,” planners say in their analysis.

And there’s quite a long, and growing, list of existing, under construction, or proposed single-family housing projects south of Lakeland Linder Airport in the western reaches of the city between West Pipkin and Ewell roads amid a checkerboard of incorporated and unincorporated areas wedged against the Polk-Hillsborough county line.

To the west along West Pipkin Road is Morgan Creek, where Morgan Creek Preserve’s 133 single-family home development was approved by the board in November. To the southwest is Riverstone, where 1,300 single-family homes are planned. Also nearby is the proposed 1,299-single family Hawthorne Mills development and 321 homes approved for Gresham Trails.

“The proposed multifamily project provides an alternative to single-family uses in an area in which there is significant demand for multifamily rental housing,” city planners say in their analysis. 

But how much multifamily is too much? City Commissioner Mike Musick asked Friday, noting constituents are querying him about a perceived surge in multifamily development. He asked for a comprehensive listing of proposed and approved apartment projects in the city.

“Is there a way, at some point, that we can have somebody at staff do an analysis of what we are seeing regionally, nationwide? Find us a little information that we can digest?” he asked, noting people are wondering why “we are putting in apartments and not single-family homes.”