BRADENTON -- The Bradenton Planning Commission was greeted Wednesday by two dozen unhappy residents and business owners affected by the proposed Villages at Riverwalk stretching from the 1000 block of Manatee Avenue East north to Riverside Drive.
The project consists of 521 rental units, including 252 three-story apartment buildings; two- and three-story townhouses on top of 10,248 square feet of commercial and retail space; and 240 multi-story residential units.
The planners recommended approval of three ordinances clearing the way for the project to the Bradenton City Council. They include right-of-way easements, a small-scale comprehensive plan map amendment and approval of a special area plan.
The city council has sparked controversy on the project after hastily approving a predevelopment agreement in November after placing it on the agenda with less than 24 hours public notice.
The lone dissenting vote was Ward 4 Councilman Bemis Smith, who supports the development for his ward, but chastised fellow council members for moving the agreement forward with a questionable level of transparency.
Notable changes to the predevelopment agreement include allowance of two four-story buildings. The agreement passed in November allowed for up to three stories. The city is now tentatively allowing the four-story structures based on the developer paying .75 of a percent of total construction value toward
a public art project within the development.
The land has been embroiled in controversy since the early 2000s, when 12-story condominiums were proposed for the now-defunct Riviera Southshore development that went bankrupt during the Great Recession.
The Bradenton Land Group consisting of the Atlanta-based Hatfield Development Group closed on the property in March for $4 million with all previous development rights.
Local attorney Ed Vogler represents the development team that includes ZNS Engineering and NDC Construction.
Vogler said Wednesday the team could proceed with formerly approved plans, and Villages at Riverwalk "is a project that is consistent with form base codes, but moreover, for anyone critical of the design, is less intense and more effective than Riviera Southshore was."
Most opposition stems from relocating Glazier Gates Park to the north from its current location just off Manatee Avenue East.
The city vision for the new version of the park would be to open park space on Riverside Drive along the Manatee River to enhance future plans to expand Riverwalk east to 12th Street East.
Nonprofit agencies such as Reflections of Manatee and the Florida Native Plant Society say the city is disregarding the park's historical and ecological significance, while nearby residents complain they are losing a great family park. Plans appear to be moving forward to relocate the park in an area where two homeowners now live.
Conceptual plans show those homes will be barricaded off from the park with a buffer -- another controversial project aspect.
The developer was "strongly" encouraged by Ward 1 Councilman Gene Gallo in November to fairly negotiate with existing homeowners for purchase of their property.
Vogler said the developer did reach out to them, but Jackie Atwood, one of the two homeowners, has maintained that did not happen.
Atwood acknowledges a man showed up in June 2014 when her husband and son were busy in the yard, but did not attempt to negotiate. An email dated Nov. 25 from Vogler to the city outlines the "outreach" efforts. Wagner Realty was retained to "initiate and complete" the outreach, the email states.
Wagner representative Duane Henderson approached the Atwoods and wrote about his encounter: "I spoke to the owner and told him I worked with you folks and he told me essentially that he had 'heard this before' and if such interest existed, that you could 'make me an offer. ... All indications were that was not going to be an inexpensive proposition. ... The conversation was very superficial."
Atwood said that is not a genuine outreach and despite the city council encouraging more efforts, none happened. Vogler previously told the Bradenton Herald more efforts would be made. Atwood denies they have, and Vogler points to the encounter in the email as a valid effort. The planning commission's action was not an approval of an actual site plan, as the development is still in the conceptual phase.
The city council will take up the three ordinances that will likely activate the plan after a Sept. 9 first reading and public hearing and second reading Sept. 23.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.