TEMPLE TERRACE — The effort to build a downtown for Temple Terrace appears no closer to reality as the developer and the city grappled again this week over a key feature of the city's vision for the project.
And even if they resolve that, the two sides could face more obstacles in the months ahead.
City officials are eager to start collecting tax revenue on the planned $160 million Downtown Temple Terrace, an urban enclave of residences, stores, restaurants and a cultural arts center on the east side of 56th Street from Bullard Parkway to the Hillsborough River.
To applause from the residents at a meeting Tuesday, the council unanimously rejected a request by the developer, Vlass Temple Terrace, to set a six-month time limit for attracting retail tenants for the first floor of planned apartment buildings. The council also rejected an offer from Vlass to lease out the first floor space to the city for a year afterward, during which time the city could sublet the space if retailers were found.
David Smith, the Tampa lawyer representing the developer, said he wasn't surprised by the vote and would consult with his clients about Vlass' next move. He assured those in attendance that the company was not going to "walk away'' from the project, as has been rumored.
"Let me be clear, we're not going anywhere,'' he said. "We're committed to this project. We're doing the best we can to make it work.''
Vlass has contended for months that it would be difficult to get financing for apartment buildings with stores on the first floor — as the city has long envisioned — and has proposed building the ground floor so that it could accommodate apartments or stores, if businesses can be lured eventually.
The city staff has proposed that Vlass build out 6,000 square feet on the ground floors of two of the three planned buildings to look like retail, then try to rent out those spaces for a year. If it is still vacant, the developer could go ahead and convert the first floor space to apartments.
But then, once the northern part of the project — with residences, retail stores, the cultural center and library — is 80 percent occupied, the owner of the apartment buildings would be obligated to try again to market the first floors to retailers.
A likely sticking point on that plan will be the glass storefronts. Council members have said the first floors have to be built to look like stores, so that potential retail tenants can see what they would be getting. But Smith, in an interview two months ago, said trying to rent out apartments with empty storefronts on the first floor would be "a recipe for economic disaster.''
Another dispute concerns ceiling height on the first floor, with the city wanting a higher ceiling than the developer proposes.
"If there was truly an intent to build retail on the first floor, we wouldn't be talking so much about ceiling heights," said council member David Pogorilich. "They would be building the ceiling 18-foot or 14-foot as suggested by staff.
"They keep saying it's a minor issue. It's not; it goes to intent of what they really want to put on the first floor.''
Mark Connolly, Temple Terrace city attorney, said it's possible the two sides will put off the negotiating on the apartment buildings and start work on the cultural arts center, which is supposed to be built before the apartments, according to the contract.