Temple Terrace mayor's statue keeps lonely vigil

The ambitious Downtown Temple Terrace development is in question.
Temple Terrace Mayor Joe Affronti, with his wife, Liz, is unsure when City Council and a developer will get on the same page. City of Temple Terrace
Temple Terrace Mayor Joe Affronti, with his wife, Liz, is unsure when City Council and a developer will get on the same page.City of Temple Terrace
Published August 2 2012

TEMPLE TERRACE — A bronze statue of Mayor Joe Affronti stands next to the gazebo at the Downtown Temple Terrace project, his right hand extended as if asking the visitor to take in the grand setting.

So far, however, just a lot of empty land surrounds the sculpture, and the flesh-and-blood Affronti said he doesn't know whether the project will move forward or not. The City Council and developer seem at an impasse over whether to have glass-fronted retail stores on the first floor of apartments set to be built on the property. The majority of the council wants them, but the developer says they're not feasible.

The disagreement has stalled progress on the ambitious downtown project, which besides apartments and retail stores would include restaurants, offices, a library, park and performing arts center built on 30 acres on the southeast corner of Bullard Parkway and 56th Street.

Affronti sees three possible outcomes: The two sides reach an agreement and move forward; the deal falls through and the city gets back the property it turned over to the developer, after paying back what the developer put into it; or they become embroiled in a lawsuit.

"In my opinion, the ability to get another developer to come in at this point, I think, would be pretty tough,'' said Affronti, who has campaigned for a Downtown Temple Terrace development since his successful run for City Council in 1998.

The parties were all smiles last December, when the developer, Vlass Temple Terrace, unveiled the statue of Affronti during a dedication of a gazebo and park on the property.

But now, Affronti is eager for the city to start reaping tax revenue from a completed project, which would help pay back the nearly $26 million the city borrowed to buy the land about eight years ago and build infrastructure on it.

City Council member David Pogorilich is confident the project will go forward once the developer realizes that, according to the contract, it has to build the project the way the city envisioned it.

"If that doesn't happen, we get the property back. We just have to pay the developer for any improvements they made," he said.

Pogorilich also has heard rumors that other developers are interested in taking over if Vlass bows out. Pogorilich and other council members want Vlass to build apartment buildings with glass storefronts on the first floor. Vlass representatives have insisted that such a plan is no longer economically viable — that they'd have trouble drawing tenants or even getting a loan to build it.

Instead, the developer wants to build the first floor so that it can be used for apartments but refitted at any time for retail stores. It has asked the council to allow it to convert the space to apartments on the first floor if they can't lure retail clients within four months of obtaining a building permit.

David L. Smith, the Tampa attorney representing the developer, said having too many empty glass storefronts would make it difficult to attract residential renters.

"That's a recipe for economic disaster,'' he said.

Smith said the weak economy makes it difficult to attract retailers, the average per-capita income is too low to attract a number of potential businesses, and the stores' visibility from 56th Street would be poor.

Council member Alison M. Fernandez has suggested moving the apartment buildings to the southern section of the project, releasing the developer from putting retail on the first floor. And a retail promenade could be built alongside Main Street in the northern section, where the apartments would have gone.

City Attorney Mark Connolly said he checked with the city's community development director, Charles Stephenson, and his initial thought is that such a configuration would fit within the city plan.

Fernandez could not be reached for comment.

Michael J. Lant, who is managing the development for Vlass, stated in an email reply to City Manager Kim D. Leinbach that he would need a resolution from the council laying out the particulars of such a request before the company could analyze the proposal.

Smith said the company wants to be clear on the proposal before determining whether it's workable.

"I think it's been difficult to come to closure on any of these issues,'' Smith said, "because it's a constantly changing proposition.''

Other council members seem ready to listen to such a plan, though questions remain.

"I don't know how much traction that's going to get,'' Pogorilich said. "I haven't made up my mind whether its a good idea or not.''

Council member Mary Jane Neale, who has voiced her desire to have stores on the first floor of apartment buildings, said she is willing to listen to any proposal that would move the project forward.

The other council members, Ronald A. Govin and Robert M. Boss, said it seemed like a possible solution. "Off the top,'' Govin said, "it sounds like a way to come up with some position acceptable to both parties.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.