Summit Consulting is negotiating with the city of Lakeland to buy a key property on Lake Mirror and build an eight-story office building there. It’s being hailed as the largest downtown construction project in decades, and supporters say it will transform the skyline, bring 500 mostly high-wage jobs downtown and spur more private development.
The public is getting its first glimpse at plans for a 135,000-square-foot office building that includes 450 parking spaces via conceptual designs Summit has submitted for review by the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority.
The site is the decades-vacant 0.9-acre “Old Fire Station Lot” at the southeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Cedar Street. Currently used as a gravel parking lot, it is next to Allen Kryger Park and overlooks the Frances Langford Promenade.
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Preliminary plans call for four floors of parking topped by four floors of offices.
“Carol Sipe, president of Summit Consulting, a member of the Great American Insurance Group, confirmed that Summit is presently discussing with the city of Lakeland the possibility of developing a Class ‘A’ office building in downtown Lakeland,” according to a statement released today via attorney Tim Campbell.
“Although the company is working toward a mutually beneficial agreement with the city of Lakeland, Summit will not provide any further comment unless and until it is able to reach an agreement with the city,” the statement concluded.
Summit Consulting, a workers’ compensation management firm, has 770 employees, 450 of them working in Lakeland from offices on Commerce Point Drive off Bartow Road.
The company will be represented by Campbell and architect Brad Lunz when they present concept plans to the LDDA board Thursday morning. That board is tasked with reviewing the design of new buildings or major alterations in the downtown area. The LDDA has not been involved in negotiations with Summit.
Negotiations have been conducted by City Manager Tony Delgado. He says ongoing discussions involve things like purchase price for the property, incentives, utilities and the city purchasing rights for evening and weekend parking.
The sale of the property will ultimately come to the City Commission for approval, along with incentives offered to the company and a development plan. Initial discussions focused on a land price between $1.5 million and $3 million, Delgado said, adding he’s “comfortable with what the number looks like. It’s closer to the higher end.”
In a report to the LDDA board, the organization’s executive director, Julie Townsend, recommends they give conceptual approval. She notes that the conceptual drawings do not represent a final development plan, and approval now will allow discussions to continue.
See Townsend’s analysis of the project here or at the end of this article.
Townsend’s cover memo outlines a list of “considerations” that read a bit like pros and cons. First, she outlines some concerns:
- The project represents a single-tenant building, not a mixed-use development and “appears inconsistent with the City Commission’s recently adopted Downtown Vision Plan, which called for a mixed-use site that the public could interact with through commercial activity or other means.”
(The city’s downtown Catalyst Plan shows a multi-story building on the property and envisions “mixed use development, giving the city the option of attracting a hotel or residential building with views of Lake Mirror and beyond.”)
Asked about that inconsistency, Delgado said the Catalyst Plan is meant to show the types of development encouraged downtown, not serve as a block-by-block guide.
- The project doesn’t fulfill public wishes for pedestrian interactivity that links the downtown core with growing commercial activity along Lake Mirror, especially on evenings and weekends.
The memo also outlines the project’s positive impacts, noting it brings:
- 500 new employees within walking distance of downtown restaurants and businesses.
- Potential for after-work spending downtown.
- 150 parking spaces available to the pubic on evenings and weekends.
- Potential residents for upcoming downtown apartments and townhouses, including the Mirrorton project planned just a few blocks away north of the CSX railroad tracks.
“To secure the most public benefit for this project, it will be crucial for the city and LDDA to continue to collaborate closely in the future with an eye toward policies and targeted spending that maximize the return on the public’s investment,” Townsend concludes.
Townsend notes that downtown design guidelines that her board will use to evaluate the conceptual drawings were revised in 2016 “to be less regulatory and more development friendly.”
In addition, she tells the board their decisions should be based on “circumstances unique to each project and its context and neighborhood location within the downtown.” In this case, the unique circumstance is “its key placement on Lake Mirror and its significance to the city’s downtown skyline.”
Delgado says the project represents an investment of tens of millions of dollars into downtown and will benefit the community through taxes the company will pay.
He views the Summit project as evidence that the city’s Catalyst Plan for downtown growth is working and will spark new development. “It shows that the city means business and we’re willing to come to the table and make it work.”
That sentiment was echoed by Steve Scruggs, president of the Lakeland Economic Development Council. “If we hadn’t had the catalyst plan ahead of time, we might not have this company moving downtown,” he said. “Having a plan gives a lot more comfort to an employer; they can see other businesses coming into the area, the availability of parking, an overall direction. It gives us as economic developers a lot to sell.”
It’s been roughly a quarter century since an employer brought 500 or more jobs downtown, he said. The last two were Watkins Motor Lines (now FedEx) in 1994 and Publix IT operations in 1995.
Like Summit, those two are local companies that “understand the value of downtown, with its 21 restaurants. farmers market, First Friday. They understand its value to creative class employees and IT and accountants who want walkability and those amenities.”
If the LDDA board gives conceptual approval Thursday, Delgado said, some of the next steps include:
- Finalizing a development agreement, incentive package and sale of the property, which will require City Commission approval.
- Negotiating city payment for public use of parking on nights and weekends.
- Integrating the project with plans for a “highline” walkway connecting Mirrorton and an anticipated adjacent parking garage with Lake Mirror and the downtown core.
- The project will go through the city’s development review process, in which all the departments involved with new construction meet with the applicant and review plans and progress.
At this point, the project appears to fall within existing zoning and building height restrictions, according to Nicole Travis, the city’s community and economic development director.
Why come to the LDDA with a building design now before there’s an agreement to purchase the property? Delgado said the LDDA review will tell the company whether there will be additional costs to factor into negotiations if design changes are requested.
The project has the potential to bridge the downtown core with a burst of development north of Lake Mirror that includes:
- The Catapult 3.0 small business incubator scheduled to open next year on the opposite side of Cedar Street/Main Street.
- The Joinery, an artisan food hall under construction in the former home of Lakeland Brewing Co.
- A new office building planned by developer Wesley Beck next to The Joinery.
- The planned Mirrorton community north of the train tracks, along with plans being made by developer Gregory Fancelli for a possible multi-use project bordering Massachusetts Avenue north of the Lakeland Police Department headquarters.
Townsend’s report outlines the design criteria that will factor into the LDDA board’s Thursday review of the conceptual drawings. Here’s our summary of the criteria and Townsend’s findings:
- Addressing the street by building to the sidewalk and supporting the pedestrian experience. Her assessment: Instead of building to the sidewalk, the plan shows a landscape buffer.
- Filling the site. Her assessment. The project fills the site and deals with the challenge of having no “rear.” It fronts on Massachusetts Avenue, Cedar/Main Street, Lake Mirror and Allen Kryger Park.
- Creating an interesting facade, not blank walls, to engage pedestrians. Her assessment: While the building “provides visual interest,” the sides facing Massachusetts and Main/Cedar are horizontal planes with little variation. “Introduction of awnings or canopies would significantly enhance the pedestrian’s experience and should strongly be considered.”
- Create transparency by allowing pedestrians to see into the business. Her assessment: “The proposed building has neither ground floor retail nor office. The ground floor windows are not transparent.”