Well, perhaps not exactly fight city hall, more like convince them to do the right thing when the odds are stacked against you. That’s what happened December 7 during a 6-hour Development Review Commission (DRC) hearing at city hall. The commission denied Belleair Development’s desire to build a Panera Bread drive-through and demolish an historic home and pave the space for a parking lot in the 2800 and 2900 blocks of 4th Street N.

The commission hearing was a long time coming, having been postponed twice before. Belleair owned the two commercial parcels on 4th Street where Alcove assisted living facility had previously been and planned to erect the Panera Bread restaurant with drive-through and a Wild Fork store on the two sites. But in the process, the developer failed to collaborate with the Old Northeast residents living near the proposed development.

The concerned neighbors were determined to make their concerns heard. Spearheaded by Angelina Emanuel, a retired Assistant Fire Chief from the city of Denver, the residents mobilized, initiating a petition that opposed the development and a letter-writing campaign that expressed the residents’ concerns. Specifically, the citizens and HONNA opposed the proposed Panera Bread drive-through because of the numerous traffic issues it would create.  And sacrificing an historic home in the National Register of Historic Places neighborhood for a parking lot just seemed, well, wrong!

The struggle finally came down to the critical DRC hearing December 7. A Hollywood screen writer could not have crafted a more intense, dramatic, and emotion-filled scene. What the DRC, the city’s planning department and Belleair did not see coming was the amazing presentation prepared by the residents with the aid of HONNA board members. In addition to the formal presentation lead by Angelina, the city council chamber was filled with approximately 30 Old Northeast residents who came to make sure their  concerns were heard.

A betting person might have put their money behind the developer after the city’s zoning department recommended the commission approve Belleair’s “special requests.” But during the following six hours, the commissioners heard reason after reason based on the facts as to why the special requests should be denied. Angelina and fellow presenters meticulously pointed out how city codes, The City’s Comprehensive Plan, the 2050 vision plan and the Old Northeast neighborhood plan all require commercial development to integrate with the neighborhood and to preserve St. Pete’s special neighborhood character, especially historic neighborhoods like the Old Northeast. The seven commissioners grilled Belleair, the planning department and Angelina with questions, often resulting in emotional responses from the packed chamber, from moans to quiet laughter.

The “just the facts” PowerPoint presentation was followed by each resident in the room giving 3-minute often-emotional statements in their own words as to how the special exceptions, if approved, would be detrimental to them, their property, and the neighborhood they all love. It became apparent that the combination of the facts and the emotional intensity of the residents was having an impact on the typically stoic commissioners. But in order to win the day, 4 of the 7 commissioners had to vote against the special requests, never an easy task. After almost six hours of presentations, questions, and discussion, the outcome was still anyone’s guess.

The final procedure in the long process, following all the testimony and presentations, was for the seven commissioners to go into their public “executive session,” in which they openly debated the issues, stated their opinions, asked additional questions, and challenged each other’s pro and con arguments. Little by little, it seemed the tide was turning in our favor as one-by-one the commissioners began making arguments as to why they should side with the neighborhood. The final vote – 6-1 against the special requests! Applause, cheers, and hugs erupted in the chamber when it became apparent we had turned back the effort to alter the character of our neighborhood for the sake of unwarranted commercial development.

In the end, the commissioners credited the residents’ unified opposition and the “just the facts” presentation for making it difficult for them to approve the special requests. Had Belleair chosen to work with the residents, they noted, it was reasonable to think a solution could have been achieved without the need for a DRC hearing that required so much time and effort on the citizens’ part. We also later learned that this case was high on the radar of city officials and we have hopes that the conversations generated by this case may help further codify the requirement to protect our neighborhoods from commercial encroachment.

As Angelina is quick to point out, this was a true team effort between the many concerned residents and HONNA. “Development, when done thoughtfully, can be a positive thing, but collaboration with the effected community is critical.  It’s never easy for residents to push back against well-funded developers who often enjoy established working relationships with the city, and it’s especially difficult when the zoning department issues a report recommending the developer get what they want.” But as she quickly added, “It was wonderful to see the civil process work the way it is supposed to. Members of city staff were responsive to our requests and encouraging of our participation. The key was concerned citizens and a strong neighborhood association like HONNA working together to make a difference.”

So, what’s next for the development site? The good news is Belleair has willingly agreed to work with the neighborhood as they review their options for the site now that Panera Bread will move to a commercial site further north on 4th Street. Stay tuned for additional updates.