Channelside Bay Plaza took a step forward with the recent opening of the Greek restaurant Taverna Opa.
Then, this week, it took a big step backward when the Tampa Port Authority sued the plaza, claiming its owner failed to pay the port rent and violated fire codes.
Tampa's fire marshal gave Taverna Opa permission to open in December even though the shopping and entertainment complex still doesn't meet fire code, especially during large events.
Fire officials said the restaurant Opa passed inspection because it replaced another eatery, Grille 29, and therefore didn't pose a significant change. "We're not trying to hurt the businesses at Channelside,'' said Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade. "What we're trying to do is bring the management into line with fire codes.''
City inspectors say the complex doesn't have enough exits to accommodate big crowds in the courtyard. The tunnel, which was added to ease access to the parking garage, doesn't count as an exit because the glass windows on businesses in the tunnel aren't fireproof. Also troubling are the fire lanes for emergency vehicles, which are often blocked by the valet parking, Wade said.
Last March, fire officials said they would not approve any new special event permits and would be "wary of approving any new construction projects'' until the fire exit issues were addressed. They finally lifted the ban in December, provided Channelside hires fire inspectors to monitor crowd numbers and move the valet out of the fire lanes. The Tampa Port Authority, which owns Channelside's land, also agreed to create an exit along the waterfront dock during special events.
Channelside officials said they've been working with the city to reach compliance. Contractors submitted permits for the tunnel work a few weeks ago and can start construction as soon as the city's building department approves them, said Brett Low, Channelside's general manager and leasing agent. "We have complied with everything the Fire Marshal's Office has wanted,'' he said. Low had no comment on the lawsuit filed Tuesday.
In the meantime, Low said work will start right away on Cadillac Ranch, an all-American grill planned in the former Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's, the Velvet Room and Lucky's. The businesses were evicted a few months ago after falling behind on rent, leaving a huge hole on the second level.
At Taverna Opa, which has restaurants across Florida, business is going well, said general manager and partner Abraham Gunger. Crime-related issues that forced them to close their Ybor City location don't exist, he said.
"It's a great atmosphere,'' he said. "It's good to be in Channelside.''