John’s Pass Village is one of the county’s top tourist attractions, with its fishing charters, restaurants and famous boardwalk, and now the city is considering expanding the low-lying district’s development potential.
Under a proposed land use change for the 27-acre village on the south end of Madeira Beach, the density of units allowed would increase 11% for residential projects and 31% for lodging developments, according to an analysis by Florida land use expert Charles Gauthier that was commissioned by a resident challenging the expansion.
The changes, being considered at a 6 p.m. City Commission meeting Wednesday, would allow enough square footage to accommodate a Tyrone Square Mall or 19 Publix stores on a barrier island highly vulnerable to storm surge, Gauthier wrote.
City Manager Robin Gomez pushed back on Gauthier’s analogy, saying that the additional floor area could be used only if all the existing structures in John’s Pass Village went away and developers started from scratch.
But the creation of a higher-density “activity center” designation for the 27-acre village would create building potential that doesn’t exist today for vacant lots and properties ripe for redevelopment.
“There’s a lot of questions about what practically will happen, but comparatively this is a very significant increase,” Gauthier said in an interview Monday. “And the point I was trying to emphasize is it’s on a vulnerable barrier island subject to sea-level rise.”
In Pinellas County, activity center designations are granted to provide more density and intensity in return for centralized developments that emphasize transit. Visitors in those locations might park once and walk to different locations — like downtown St. Petersburg, for example.
If the City Commission approves the John’s Pass Village Activity Center on Wednesday, the change would then require approval from the Pinellas County Commission and Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning agency.
Developer Ben Mallah, who owns the property occupied by the popular Hubbard’s Marina, said if the activity center is enacted he plans to build a 20-unit hotel with retail on a lot adjacent to the boardwalk that is big enough to park about 20 cars.
“It’s really important the zoning gets changed,” Mallah said. “It’s going to enable John’s Pass to really grow and become more of a tourist destination, which will be great for everybody.”
City officials say the activity center is needed in order to correct a long-standing technical deficiency putting many of the buildings in John’s Pass Village at risk.
In 2008, Madeira Beach changed its comprehensive plan to allow more square footage of development per property than what the county permits. The noncompliance means that in the event of a fire, hurricane or other catastrophe, the county’s rules would prevail during reconstruction and many of the buildings in John’s Pass would not be allowed to be rebuilt to what exists today.
But the proposed activity center would allow for drastically more development potential than what exists today in most of the John’s Pass Village footprint.
It would create six new “character districts,” each with its own density and intensity standards. In some small pockets, density is decreased, like on the 1.3-acre boardwalk, where residential and lodging potential is removed entirely.
But in other areas of the village, development potential skyrockets.
About 3.8 acres in the commercial core of the village adjacent to the boardwalk currently allow 60 lodging units per acre. Under the new rules, up to 100 lodging units per acre would be possible. The “floor area ratio,” which limits how much building mass a piece of land can accommodate, would more than double.
In June 2021, developer Bill Karns and partners used a limited liability company called “JPV Hotel Property” to buy a mostly vacant block in this commercial core along 129th Avenue that they now use for parking. They paid $10 million for the land.
Although the previous owners of the land had formal plans to build a hotel, Karns said he intends to continue renting the lots to surrounding businesses for parking.
“We have no plans to build a hotel,” he said. “We’re very happy with the situation where it is as cash-flowing real estate.”
But City Commissioner David Tagliarini said that after he was elected in March, Karns drove him around the city to talk about his development record. Tagliarini said he asked Karns if he was going to build a hotel on the vacant lots near the boardwalk and he responded: “Yes, I’d like to see a hotel there.”
The proposed “resort” district, about 7 acres west of Gulf Boulevard along the beach, would allow 24 residential units per acre — up from the 18 currently permitted. It would allow up to 100 lodging units per acre with a development agreement, up from the current limit of 75.
Mayor John Hendricks declined to comment on proposed expansion for John’s Pass Village before Wednesday’s vote.
But Tagliarini said he has been listening to residents who are concerned about overdevelopment in the low-lying barrier island in light of storm surge from intensified hurricanes, like the one that devastated Fort Myers Beach last year.
If the city’s goal is to protect the existing structures in the event they had to be rebuilt, Tagliarini said he doesn’t understand why the city would add even more density and intensity than what currently exists.
“I don’t know how you can do the math any other way except more density is more traffic and more people in the way of a hurricane,” Tagliarini said. “It’s more people to get off the island in a hurricane.”