The City Commission voted 5-to-1 to start negotiating a lease agreement with Green Mills Group to turn 2.83 acres that the city owns into an affordable workforce housing complex. The proposed site is off East Bella Vista Street, immediately south of Tigertown.

LAKELAND — Lakeland commissioners supported one developer's bid to build workforce housing in Lakeland with the requirement to match the losing competitor's plans.

The City Commission voted 5-to-1 to start negotiating a lease agreement with Green Mills Group to turn 2.83 acres that the city owns into an affordable workforce housing complex. The proposed site is off East Bella Vista Street, immediately south of Tigertown.

“We've got a long battle to build somewhere between 600 to 1,200 units in the next five to six years in the city for affordable housing,” Mayor Bill Mutz said. “Every single one of these units matter.”

The Fort Lauderdale-based developer, who has built Aida Palms, will have to agree to the promises made in the competing bid by Tampa-based Blue Sky Communities to close the deal.

Blue Sky Communities submitted a proposal to the city to construct an 86-unit complex that would be named Bella Vista Landing. The multifamily housing would consist of a five-story building with promises to include an outdoor playground and fitness center for residents. Shawn Wilson, president of Blue Sky, said that 14 apartments would be reserved for very low-income families making 30% or less of the average median income — or $25,750 for a family of four.

“We know there's a spectrum of need out there and we are trying to address it,” he said.

By comparison, Green Mills had guaranteed it would build the minimum requirement of 80 apartments, reserving at least four units for very low-income families while providing residents with patios and a community room.

“Based on the fact that Green Mills has greater management experience through a third party and the layout of this particular site plan, the staff recommends you proceed with entering into a lease agreement with Green Mills,” Teresa Maio, the city's planning and housing manager.

The city staff's suggestion to select Green Mills despite offering fewer total apartments and less in the way of amenities raised several questions.

“We've gone away from brick buildings that look like the projects to having more aesthetics” Commissioner Justin Troller said. “It says a lot about your quality of life when you have playgrounds and a fitness center rather than a patio, or poured concrete, and a community room, which is basically four walls.”

Mutz said he was concerned the plans showed fewer total units and less for very low-income residents.

“That's a pretty material factor,” he said.

Oscar Sol, president and co-founder of Green Mills, said his company was not more specific in its plans for a simple, strategic reason.

“This funding is a highly, highly competitive process,” he said. “It's a race of who will provide more units for the least amount of money. You don't necessarily want to put all your cards on the table in a public setting.”

Sol told city commissioners his company was willing to fulfill the bid promises made by Blue Sky Communities to win the contract.

“Of course we want to try to do 100 units if we can,” he said. “That's the maximum allowed by zoning.”

Mutz was the sole vote against the city's partnership with Green Mills.

“I think Blue Sky was willing to commit to it up front and should be rewarded,” he said.

Green Mills has until Sept. 16 to reach a 50-year lease agreement with the city. It had proposed a rate of $10 per year plus or minus any administrative fee, plus taxes and insurance.

By Sept. 17, the developer must submit the lease with building plans to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation for Community Development Block Grant - Disaster Recovery fund tied to those areas affected by Hurricane Irma to receive the money needed for construction. The funding requires any project constructed remain as affordable housing for a minimum of 99 years.

If it does not succeed, it will have a second opportunity to apply for state funding in October.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at swalsh@theledger.com or 863-802-7545.