The company selected to transform long-neglected city land overlooking the Hillsborough River is asking the city of Tampa for millions more in funding for a project that raised concerns over fairness when it was approved two years ago.
Last month, Miami-based Related Group asked the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area to provide $4.25 million extra for the project west of downtown known as “Rome Yard,” draft notes from the meeting show.
Peter Van Warner, development manager for Related, said the extra funding was needed for “infrastructure improvements and other features for the project,” according to the notes from the July 25 meeting. Neither Van Warner nor Related responded to repeated phone calls from the Tampa Bay Times for elaboration on the reasons for the funding ask.
“The administration does not support that request for additional funding,” city communications director Adam Smith told the Times in an email. “The City and Related have an existing Community Benefits Agreement that outlines the city’s contribution to the project, which is land.”
In 2021, the Related Urban Development Group LLC won the $300 million project in partnership with the Tampa Housing Authority to transform 18-acres of prime city property formerly used as a truck yard into a hub of mixed-income housing, retail and community amenities. Cries of foul play and concerns over the selection process stirred soon after.
In response to Van Warner’s ask, Janette LaRussa Fenton, who sits on the redevelopment agency’s community advisory committee, made a motion for the city’s lawyers to provide an opinion on whether or not Related’s request would be a legal use of city funds. The advisory committee voted unanimously to approve Fenton’s motion.
Sandra Sanchez, an at-large member of the advisory committee, told the Times she thought it was odd that Van Warner was asking the group for money.
“I was surprised that Related Group came before the CRA for money, as I believed they had a partnership with the city and the housing authority,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t understand how the committee fit into that mix. And after all, Related is supposed to be the big international organization with all the money.”
At the July meeting, Van Warner pointed to rising costs of materials and resources as reasons for needing more funding, Sanchez said.
Construction is not set to begin until “spring or later,” Smith said, adding that the project is “on schedule” and in “design phase.”
The Times contacted other members of the committee, but had not heard back at the time of publication.
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In 2019, then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn decided to pull the plug on previous development bids for the West Tampa property, saying that the proposals received were “not as robust” as he’d hoped. Mayor Jane Castor took over the process when she assumed office later that year.
Within days of Castor’s news conference announcing Related’s proposal as the winner in 2021, a losing bidder, Tampa-based InVictus Development LLC, filed a formal protest. The company charged that a city selection committee member, Joe Robinson, had fouled the process by moving to throw out minority outreach scores. That action tilted the scales, InVictus said, toward Related.
Robinson, an engineer and longtime resident of West Tampa, signed a consulting contract worth up to $75,000 with the Tampa Housing Authority — a partner in the deal with Related — a month before initiating the move, the Times previously reported.
Robinson is chairperson of the West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area’s citizen advisory committee — the same body Van Warner, development manager for Related, has requested the extra funding from.
The officer also dismissed InVictus’ other claim, that the city and Related violated the “cone of silence,” the requirement not to contact non-authorized city employees or attempt to influence the selection before it is announced.
But optics concerns with the pivotal project persisted: Previous Times reporting revealed Mayor Castor’s nephew worked for Related Group when the company secured the contract. And Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, held a high-level position at Ballard Partners, a powerful lobbying firm that works for Related.
In previous statements, the city has said Castor wasn’t involved in the selection process and that every contract Ballard has with Tampa states Cruz won’t benefit from or participate in any city work.
Related is already a major player in Tampa’s development boom, playing a leading role in the nearly $350 million remake of Tampa’s West River area, just south of the Rome Yard parcel. Related is also the developer of the Ritz-Carlton Residences on Bayshore.
Located between Rome Avenue and the Hillsborough River, and south of Columbus Drive, the Rome Yard tract is positioned with easy access to downtown, Tampa International Airport, South Tampa and the nearby Riverside and Seminole Heights neighborhoods.
Robinson, the advisory committee chairperson, told the Times Monday that the committee is awaiting guidance on Related’s funding request from the Tampa city attorney’s office.
“First we have to know if it is even something we could do, if it is legal,” he said. “Then we can discuss it and then we’ll vote it up or down.”