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Channel planner accused of bias

The firm hired to create a master plan for the Channel District also works for a majority of the developers with potential projects in that area, leading some to allege conflict of interest.

"The current plan was not done by someone who's independent of the Channel District," John Akin, vice president of development for Novare Group, told City Council members at a workshop Monday. His comments were directed at WilsonMiller, a Naples planning firm the city is paying $305,000 to map out the future of the fast-growing area near downtown.

Michael English, the WilsonMiller planner who spearheaded the creation of the proposal, called the insinuations "insulting."

English said he couldn't say exactly how many Channel District developers his company works for, initially offering the estimate of two-thirds, but later backing off that number.

"We didn't consult any of them when we wrote the plan," he said in an interview after the meeting.

One client is the Tampa Port Authority, which owns much of the undeveloped land in the neighborhood where WilsonMiller's plan recommends putting the Channel District's tallest buildings.

Buildings with fewer stories would be allowed in the northern and southern parts of the Channel District, where WilsonMiller also has clients. The smallest buildings would be permitted in the center of the district.

English said the City Council can change elements of the plan it doesn't like, but he stands by it.

WilsonMiller came up with the current version of the plan in response to residents' concerns about tall buildings in the center of the district and the current patterns of development, he said. Most of the buildings in the center of the district now top out at 12 stories. Previously approved projects on the south and north ends are much taller, he said.

The Port Authority property has the tallest potential buildings - up to 35 stories - because extra height will be tied to developer contributions to such things as stormwater improvements, public parks and the Riverwalk. Those elements should go on the waterfront, English said.

"We've taken a rational approach," he told City Council members Mary Alvarez and Linda Saul-Sena on Monday. "If you think one height would be more appropriate, you need to come to that decision yourself."

The complaints about a conflict of interest come from a few disgruntled developers, he said.

Novare and local developer Intown Group had planned to build a condo tower in the center of the district, but the City Council halted the proposal in response to an outcry from neighbors who said the building was too tall. The council also postponed a decision on a condo tower proposed for the center of the district by developer Fida Sirdar's until WilsonMiller could complete its plan.

But others in the Channel District community have also questioned WilsonMiller's involvement. Resident Jimmie Overton said he opposes high-rises anywhere in his neighborhood, but he thinks it's unfair that WilsonMiller seems to have sliced up the district in a way that allows the tallest buildings where the company has clients.

Henry Lewis, who has operated a printing company in the Channel District since 1968, sent letters to city officials last month saying it was "embarrassing and disappointing that the city could even consider this very obvious conflict of interest."

City officials defended WilsonMiller Monday.

"These people have been around a long time," said City Council member Mary Alvarez. "They know what they're doing."

WilsonMiller is a planning and engineering firm with more than 500 employees and two offices in Tampa. The company has clients throughout the Southeast.

English has worked for the company for four years. Before that, he had a private practice in Tampa for 10 years, and participated in the creation of a vision plan for the Channel District in 1993 when he was executive director of the Ybor Channel Redevelopment Association.

WilsonMiller was among eight firms that responded to a request for qualifications from the city for the Channel District project, said Dave Parkinson, Tampa's deputy director for urban development. A review committee narrowed that list to three: WilsonMiller; URS Corp., the engineering consultant for the expansion of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway; and Houston's Civic Design Associates, which developed a vision plan for Ybor City.

Michael Chen, the city's director of urban development, came to Tampa after WilsonMiller was awarded the contract in June. But he said the company was a good choice.

Before coming to Tampa, he served as director of development for Oak Park, Ill., for six years and helped choose several planning consultants there.

"There is kind of a standing debate if you will. One of them being that people see an advantage to bringing someone in from out of town who has no relationships in the community, no conflicts, no bias, no preconceived ideas. The other side of that coin is using somebody local," he said. "Hands down, there is an overwhelming preference for using the local person because they have a better understanding of the neighborhoods. Them having clients in the area is part of what comes with that."

Janet Zink can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com.

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