Polk County's Planning Commission voted Wednesday to overrule county staff and recommend approving a plan by Seefried Industrial Properties to add 1.5 million square feet of distribution warehouse space on a U.S. 27 site previously slated for a regional shopping center.
The Four Corners Town Center, at the corner of U.S. 27 and Ronald Reagan Parkway, is an approved Development of Regional Impact with entitlements for 1 million square feet of retail-commercial space and a movie theater. It's also part of a subdistrict within the county, known as the Ronald Reagan Select Area Plan (SAP), that specifically prohibits the development of warehouse distribution space on the east side of U.S. 27.
Planning staff had recommended denying Seefried's project, on the grounds that it was incompatible with the established residential neighborhoods surrounding it. Planning Administrator Chanda Bennett said that even with a 250-foot setback proposed by the developer it would be "almost impossible" to buffer the warehouses from residential uses.
"Staff worked with stakeholders and residents over two years to specifically establish this prohibition on the east side of U.S. 27, so there's a foundation for this vision," she said.
The case goes to the Board of County Commissioners on Nov. 7.
The west side of the intersection is already home to a booming warehouse district, with more than 5.2 million square feet of distribution centers for Walmart, FedEx, Amazon, Mattress Firm, Best Buy, Ford, hhgregg and CVS.
Seefried is the same company that's building a 2.3-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Lake Nona. Paul Seefried, vice president of development, told planning commissioners that his project would be "less intense on the residential folks" than the currently permitted commercial.
"We realize the significance of this project to the overall area, and we've done our best to address concerns about it," he said.
The 114-acre parcel is owned by heirs of grocery store magnate Joe Albertson. They originally sought the restrictive Four Corners Town Center DRI in the early 2000s when they had the property under contract to a mall developer. That contract never closed, and the Albertsons have tried to market the land for retail development for more than a decade, according to attorney Tim Campbell.
"There has been no interest in commercial retail at this site," Campbell said. "The demand for distribution center uses on this site has grown significantly because of the saturation on the west side of U.S. 27."
The Albertsons did sell 17 acres on the hard corner, and Intram Investments President Rashid Khatib told commissioners he planned to build a grocery-anchored retail center there. The Seefried project would kill his deal, he said.
But Andy Hawkins, senior vice president of Foundry Commercial, said there is no demand at that intersection for anything more than grocery-anchored retail. Hawkins personally listed the asset for four years, and he said he couldn't get any traction despite his efforts because all of the big-box retail on the corridor is going to Posner Commons, south of I-4.
"I went to four ICSCs in Las Vegas, and four in Atlanta and four in Charlotte," he said. "There was no interest in putting retail here."
But Hawkins had eight interested buyers who wanted to build warehouses.
Planning Commissioner Robert Stanz said that wasn't a good enough reason to approve the project. "That's no excuse to fit a square peg into a round hole," he said.
Stanz said allowing warehouses -- with the associated noise and truck traffic -- on the Albertson property would reduce the property values of surrounding homeowners, several of whom attended the hearing and spoke in opposition.
But Chairman Rennie Heath said the Albertsons shouldn't be tied to a plan that hadn't been updated for the last 12 years.
"I realize that SAPs are visions, and visions change over time," he said. "It's been a Regional Activity Center since 2005, and I find it hard to believe there's going to be a big demand for 1 million square feet of retail."