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Fire marshal cranks up the heat on Channelside Bay Plaza

TAMPA — Over the years, Channelside Bay Plaza has not had the occupancy problems that plagued some other shopping complexes.

Envisioned as a shopping center when it was built in 2001, Channelside has morphed into a restaurant- and bar-heavy destination, taking advantage of the nearby St. Pete Times Forum's hockey games and concerts. Snoop Dogg and others have played in the courtyard, drawing thousands of people to the plaza for special events.

But the shift from a place to shop to a place to play came with consequences that the Tampa fire marshal says has been ignored for too long.

Channelside does not meet the fire code since transforming to an entertainment complex.

Tired of negotiating, interim Fire Marshal Melvin Jenkins has vowed to prohibit new businesses from doing any remodeling.

"We won't allow any permit work to be done," he said. "So if someone wants to remodel something, we're not going to allow that. Our desire is not to hurt anyone's business. But at the same time, we have to look out for the safety of anyone visiting those establishments."

In this recession, that's a serious hammer to try and force Channelside management to comply. The complex needs new tenants since evicting four bars just a few weeks ago for unpaid rent. Channelside also owes its landlord, the Port of Tampa, more than $250,000 in parking fees.

Brett Low, Channelside's general manager and leasing agent, said the fire marshal's sanction could "potentially" affect the opening of Taverna Opa, a Greek restaurant chain that plans to open soon in the former Grille 29 space on the lower level, as well as other future tenants.

"That is what it is," he said.

But he said he's close to submitting a corrective plan soon.

Channelside, a 230,000-square-foot complex built for $49 million on downtown Garrison Channel, includes Hooters, an IMAX theater, piano bar and upscale bowling alley. Its entry and exit points would conform to the fire code if shoppers just came and went through the complex. But patrons of Channelside stay for hours for dinner and drinks, slowly filling the place with more than 1,000 people on weekends.

That occupancy threshold requires Channelside to have four fire-rated exits, Jenkins said. Channelside has four exits but just three meet fire inspection criteria.

The complex's main tunnel or "pass through" into the courtyard from Channelside Drive has about 40 feet that could be dangerous if a large crowd tried to squeeze through during a fire or emergency. Fixing the problem could involve installing reinforced glass, rolling shutters or drywall in the tunnel or making other engineering changes.

"If you're going to have thousands of people in that courtyard and a problem occurs, you want those people to be able to get out safely and not get trampled," Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade said.

The Fire Marshal's Office has asked Channelside to fix the issue for more than a year, Jenkins said. A few months ago, plaza management agreed to make changes but never submitted construction plans. Jenkins said it seems like Channelside dropped the issue.

"In my mind, I would think that it's not expensive, but I'm not a contractor," Jenkins said.

Low said his management company has been working on a solution that's not as simple as it seems. Fire-rated glass doesn't come in desired lengths. Walling off storefront windows in the tunnel could reduce leaseable space, and aesthetics are important.

• • •

Then there's the issue of getting blessings from the Port Authority, Department of Homeland Security and state law enforcement officials, who have oversight of the waterfront.

An architect has drawn up several options that Channelside's New York-based construction manager will review Monday, Low said. He has also sought out construction bids.

"We're 90 percent done," he estimated. "Once we're able to say, 'This is the plan,' (Jenkins) and the building department have assured me they will fast-track the permit and we'll be good to go."

From the outside looking in, the lack of progress worries businesses such as Qachbal's Chocolatier, located within the tunnel that needs to be reinforced. Owner Candy Qachbal said the issue could affect whether she decides to renew her lease.

"They need to address these issues," Qachbal said. "I would hate to pull out from Channelside, but if things don't change you don't have any other option but to pick up and move out."

A number of growing vacancies will also influence the decision, she said. Channelside recently evicted Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's, the Velvet Room and Lucky's — clubs all under one ownership — after they fell behind on $57,000 monthly rent payments, emptying much of Channelside's upper level.

Coincidentally, the Port of Tampa is threatening to terminate Channelside's lease if the more than $250,000 in parking fees aren't paid and fire issues aren't resolved, according to a letter a port attorney sent Channelside's owner last month.

The port owns parking garages next to the plaza that discount patrons' validated parking for a monthly fee of $21,000. But Channelside management hasn't made a payment in about a year, port attorney Charles Klug said.

Low declined to comment on the port's claims.

But he said the issues won't stop crowds from coming out to Channelside. On Saturday, the complex hosted an Atlantic Coast Conference Championship game party. A Dec. 18 Holiday Lighted Boat Parade also remains on schedule.

The Fire Marshal's Office continues to approve special events on a case-by-case basis, Jenkins said, as long as Channelside keeps extra fire personnel on hand to supervise exits and monitor building occupancy limits.

Jenkins said his office allows the events because he doesn't want to hurt downtown area businesses and tenants during the recession. But those allowances are being made in good faith that Channelside fixes fire code issues soon.

"We're not asking you to do something above the norm," he said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Fire marshal cranks up the heat on Channelside Bay Plaza 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 10:21pm]
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