Neighbors protest height of Clearwater condo proposed by developers tied to Scientology

Residents are fighting the 86-foot-tall condo for its impact on surrounding homes. But they also doubt the developers' assurances that the Church of Scientology is not involved.

Tampa Bay Times/May 18, 2019

By Tracey McManus

Clearwater — About 15 years ago, Edgewater neighborhood residents rallied against a proposal to build a 59-foot condo in place of two mom and pop motels near the waterfront corner of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.

Technically, residents lost in 2004 when a judge upheld the Community Development Board's approval of the project. But after demolishing the Bay Queen and Edgewater motels, the developer's project fell through. Neighbors have enjoyed a large vacant lot, with nothing obstructing the waterfront view, for more than a decade.

Now residents of surrounding one- and two-story homes have dusted off their old “no tall condos” logo, printed more T-shirts and relaunched their opposition campaign against a new 80-unit luxury condo proposed for the site.

Valor Capital CEO Moises Agami and his father-son partners Elias and Diego Jafif are proposing a 7-story, 86-foot-tall condo building for the property, which they bought last year for $4 million, according to Pinellas County records. The Community Development Board is scheduled to vote on the project Tuesday. City planning staff have recommended approval.

Neighborhood association president Kate Belniak said most residents are not against development on the site, but the height and scope of Valor's project would overwhelm surrounding homes.

“We're not opposed to all development,” Belniak said in a statement. “We're hoping for something more sensible.”

Most of the 3-acre site sits as an island of tourist zoning on the western edge of the residential neighborhood. Neighbors have submitted more than 150 signatures and 30 letters opposing the project, concerned a 7-story condo clashes with the character of the area. Residents on Sunnydale Drive, the dead-end road bordering the property to the north, where the condo would have a residential entrance/exit, fear 80 more units will add congestion to a street that already backs up during peak times as drivers try to turn onto busy Edgewater Drive.

The developers' involvement as members of the Church of Scientology, at a time when companies controlled by parishioners have bought large pieces of real estate downtown, has also raised concerns among neighbors. During the developers' presentation at the Edgewater neighborhood association meeting in October, residents questioned Diego Jafif on whether the Scientology organization was actually behind the project.

In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Jafif said “the Church of Scientology has absolutely nothing to do with the project.” He said the quality, design and aesthetics of the condo would be a boost to surrounding properties.

The condo would be Valor Capital's second residential project in Clearwater following the SkyView condo on Cleveland Street.

A company controlled by Agami, with which Diego Jafif is involved, purchased $16.4 million of property on and around Cleveland Street in November, putting him in control of major swaths of the downtown core. Another company now controlled by Agami and Jafif bought most of the north 400 block of Cleveland Street in 2003.

Tony Tanner, who has lived on Edgewater Drive for seven years, said he would welcome a hotel or restaurant on the site, which the tourism zoning would also allow, because it would benefit the general public. He fears private luxury condos controlled by prominent members of Scientology could be exclusionary.

“If they put a hotel there and they had a bar and restaurant, that would be fine,” Tanner said. “We have nothing against the church … We have a problem with this and we believe (Scientology) is behind it in which it will be just another property they use for their own purposes and it won't be for tourism.”

Valor Capital architect Alan McDonnell, who said he is not a Scientologist, said he has met with Edgewater neighborhood residents eight times over the past six months and made a series of design revisions to address their concerns.

He increased setbacks from Sunnydale Road so neighbors' lines of sight from their doorsteps are not obstructed. He reduced the project from 10 to seven stories. He added robust landscaping. He located the main entrance on Sunset Point Road for visitors and residents. The entrance on Sunnydale Drive will only be for residents in order to alleviate extra traffic on the residential dead-end street.

"It's a site that hasn't been developed in well over 10 years," McDonnell said. "It's going to be a gateway for development going towards the city of Clearwater, which I believe is needed. On the architecture, it's a very contemporary build and modern build."

The city received letters of support for the project from the Comfort Suites hotel, just north of the property, and the historic Fenway Hotel, which opened one mile north in Dunedin on Edgewater Drive in October. Ten mostly downtown area residents also wrote in with their support, but only one of those live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed project.

“Quality establishments improve communities and strengthen the neighborhoods where we work, and therefore we support any effort that proposes growth along with social responsibility,” Fenway director of sales Nancy Calabrese wrote.

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