DUNEDIN — After nearly nine years of talks with developers, officials last year thought the Gateway project was finally a go. But last week, after another year watching the 4-acre plot across from Mease Dunedin Hospital sit vacant, commissioners decided to throw in the towel.
"We have talked and talked and talked for years. . . . I am not going any further with this," said Commissioner Deborah Kynes at a June 16 meeting. "I am done. Zip. Nay."
Kynes, along with Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski and Commissioner Heather Gracy, voted in favor of a motion to send a letter of default to Ohio-based Pizzuti Builders over the plan since 2007 to bring apartments and retail to the east end of Main Street.
"For the last three to four years we have been almost there, almost closed, and I just don't it believe for a hot minute when I hear one more time, we're almost there," Bujalski said to Pizzuti representative Jim Russell at the meeting after he asked commissioners for another chance. "You're asking us to put faith and trust in you again, and I'm sorry, but you dragged us out."
The motion passed 3-2, opposed by Commissioner John Tornga and Vice Mayor Bruce Livingston, who said regardless of past problems with Pizzuti, the project is too valuable to give up on.
"I could certainly see what other commissioners were saying in terms of broken promises and commitments, but this project represents a great opportunity for Dunedin," Livingston said in an interview with the Times. "I do feel that Pizzuti wasn't as diligent as they should be. . . . They probably could have done a little better of a job, but I hope the project continues to move forward."
But City Attorney Tom Trask said under the current agreement, it isn't possible. A letter of default is generally used to give developers 60 days to cure, or meet agreement terms they've missed. But Pizzuti's missed construction deadlines date as far back as August 2014, and because they can't go back in time to meet them, the company has no way to mend the agreement currently on the table.
"It's not normal to go nine years to get a development out of the ground," Trask said, noting a long history of amendments and revisions to various agreements between Pizzuti and the city over the past several years. "I don't think there is a possibility for them to cure."
Bob Ironsmith, economic development director who has been involved with the project since the beginning, agreed that the prolonged timeline is unique and unlike other recent projects in the city's downtown. He said despite uncontrollable obstacles for Pizzuti, such as a recession and problems with partners previously involved, the company could have done a better job.
"I am baffled why this thing has taken so long," he said. "Yes, there have been different factors to slow the process down, but there is no reason they shouldn't be able to get it done."
Russell said Pizzuti did everything it could to move the project, and the lag was out of the company's control.
"No developer wants to see land sit and go undeveloped," he said. "But since we started there have been numerous challenges."
At the close of the 60-day cure period, the city will issue a notice of termination to officially end the project. Because the land is a checkerboard of smaller pieces alternately owned by the city and Pizzuti, the ending will leave each party with only its respective disconnected bits, complicating later development there.
"The developer owns a piece, then we own a piece, then they own a piece . . . it's split and disjointed, and that is a challenge," Ironsmith said. But the mayor said she isn't worried.
"I don't want the split land to mean that we're going to be held hostage in perpetuity, and I think -that's the way we've treated it," she said at the meeting. "Yes, it is going to be difficult to figure out . . . but we will have really creative decisionmaking that will help us move on in a good way."
Ironsmith said the city's portion is still valuable and developable on its own, and agreed with Bujalski that plans will just have to be a little more creative to make something work there. But anything is better for Dunedin's booming downtown than what's there now: grass.
"We called it gateway because it really is the gateway to our city. It's an important piece, a bookend," he said. "It's a waste to have it just sit there."
Livingston said even though this run with Pizzuti is over, he doesn't think the company's bridge with the city is completely burned.
"I hope to see them reset the clock and come back to us, not give up on the project, and I think the city would be very open to entertaining that," he said. "Sometimes time heals, so I say let's start over."
Russell said the company hasn't decided its next move yet and plans to consider every option. But Kynes, for one, says if even if the company does come back to the city, she will never be open to Pizzuti again.
"Like I said, I'm done," she said. "I have simply lost my confidence in their ability to perform."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.