NEW PORT RICHEY – The revitalization of downtown New Port Richey east of the Main Street bridge is well underway. Sprucing up areas to the bridge’s west remains stuck in neutral.
One area of high interest to the city is at the southeast corner of Main Street and U.S. 19-Gulf Coast Highway. The area consists of multiple parcels and three vacant buildings – the former Walgreens, former Downtown Gyros and Seafood and former home of the Suncoast News. A SunTrust bank branch still operates on the southern end of the plot.
Last week, City Council focused on the former Walgreens property and its unique situation. It sits right at the corner of U.S. 19 and Main Street, which is prime real estate.
What’s strange about the property is its zoning designation – it has two.
Last Thursday’s quasi-judicial review of the property owner’s rezoning request didn’t exactly smooth things over. It raised more questions than it produced solutions.
Technically the property was split between two land use and zoning districts, requiring a pair of quasi-judicial reviews. In zoning terms, the property is half Downtown – the northern section along Main Street – and half Highway Commercial. The property owners, Safety Harbor-based Encore Real Estate Development, came to the city requesting to change the whole are to Highway Commercial. That designation allows for a wider variety of businesses compared to the Downtown zoning.
But therein lies a problem.
The northern portion of the property designated as Downtown is on Main Street and connects with all other parcels east to River Road. Properties across the street on the north side of Main Street from U.S. 19 to River Road also carry the same Downtown zoning designation. That was done for a reason and Councilman Peter Altman didn’t waste time Thursday to remind the board, staff and anyone in attendance.
“I understand you’re following what you think are rules, but those who have spoken to it haven’t been around nearly as long as the individuals who created that,” Altman said while expressing his intentions to vote against moving forward with the zoning and land use changes at this time. “They did it for a reason and the reason was to bring a corridor into our city.”
On more than one occasion the city’s hired consultant groups to study the Main Street corridor and provide recommendations on, among other things, how to best use the land and property. Finding a way to entice and encourage people to turn onto Main Street from U.S. 19 is a crucial piece to the overall success of the Main Street corridor, Altman said. The Downtown zoning designation was designed in such a way to give the city some say over the types of businesses allowed to operate on those parcels.
Switching out the Walgreens property to Highway Commercial would ease those restrictions right at the corner of U.S. 19 and Main Street, Altman said, and could lead to other property owners requesting future zoning changes.
“This is not having some vision of the corner,” Altman said. “This is just trying to help someone sell a piece of property that is currently not functioning.”
Altman spoke after Planning and Development Director George Romagnoli provided background information on the property, zoning and land use issues, and what comes next. During the presentation, Romagnoli added that not only was the parcel split in two, the former Walgreens building itself is practically split between two zones. That building was constructed in 2000 and Councilman Chopper Davis’ question about how it was built in the first place went unanswered. It was theorized that the zoning had been just Highway Commercial at the time, but no firm answer could be provided.
Mayor Rob Marlowe added another unknown to the mix when he relayed a conversation he had with someone who told him about Verizon having a vault with community cables or equipment underneath the Walgreens building.
Patrick Budronis, with Encore Real Estate Development, confirmed that statement later in the discussion, saying that Verizon does have an active easement under the property. It wasn’t certain how that could impact future development of the site.
Verizon sold its landline telephone, cable TV and internet operations to Frontier Communications in 2016.
Commissioner Jeff Starkey shared Altman’s concern about how other nearby property owners would react to a zoning alteration. He also wondered aloud if it could weaken the city’s ability to create the Main Street corridor from U.S. 19 to downtown, referred to as River Gate during past planning sessions.
“What makes me pause is that for a couple years I’ve been hearing about this whole project we’re trying to do for that River Gate region there and now we’re just looking to rezone one parcel out of all of those parcels,” Starkey said.
As of two weeks ago, the Walgreens property was being considered as a new location for Famous Tate, an appliance and bedding retailer. According to City Manager Debbie Manns, Famous Tate decided to stay at its location in Port Richey. Part of that decision may have been influenced by the city needing to switch the property’s zoning designation because Famous Tate isn’t a business that’s eligible in a Downtown zone.
Given the amount of questions and concern that arose during Thursday’s discussion, Altman suggested tabling the issue for 30 days. City staff will look into questions raised by council and the rezoning will be discussed during the first regular meeting of October.
City Attorney Timothy Driscoll reminded council that a decision must be made either way since the property owner made the request.