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Tampa drops eminent domain lawsuit to secure land for road into Water Street Tampa

The railroad tracks in the foreground of this photo are on a parcel of land owned by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and leased for the use of the ConAgra flour mill. Plans call for extending Cumberland Avenue over the parcel to connect to S Meridian Avenue, creating a new route into and  out of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project being developed by Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment. Past negotiations to secure the land for the road have failed, and last week the city of Tampa dropped an eminent domain lawsuit to secure the property. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times (2016)
The railroad tracks in the foreground of this photo are on a parcel of land owned by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and leased for the use of the ConAgra flour mill. Plans call for extending Cumberland Avenue over the parcel to connect to S Meridian Avenue, creating a new route into and out of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project being developed by Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment. Past negotiations to secure the land for the road have failed, and last week the city of Tampa dropped an eminent domain lawsuit to secure the property. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times (2016)
Published Jul. 25, 2018

TAMPA — City Hall has dropped a lawsuit to use its power of eminent domain to secure a small patch of land needed for part of a road leading in to the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project, but that's probably not the end of the matter.

"We thought it was the in the best interest of the city of dismiss the case at this point," City Attorney Salvatore Territo said this week. He said ongoing negotiations had a bearing on the decision, but would not say what's being discussed, who the parties are or how long the discussions could last. While the city could refile the lawsuit, Territo said he's not sure if it would.

The city filed the suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court last summer. Mayor Bob Buckhorn had called the idea of using eminent domain, a legal process that allows governments to take private land for public purposes in exchange for compensation set through the courts, the "least desirable option," but one that eventually became necessary because "we're at a point where we can't wait any longer."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa files eminent domain suit to secure land for road into Vinik-Cascade project

The amount of land at issue is tiny — less than a sixth of an acre — but the parcel has become a sticking point between downtown Tampa's gritty industrial past and it lifestyle-driven future.

It is at the southern end of what's known as the Old Tampa Rail Yard, and has been used by various railroads for more than a century. It has one set of railroad tracks on it, and CSX uses that line to switch trains that bring grain to the ConAgra flour mill from track to track in the larger rail yard to the north.

The land is owned by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and is part of a larger parcel leased to the flour mill, which sits just north of Water Street Tampa's 50 acres. The lease is in place as long as the 80,000-square-foot mill, which ships flour across Florida, the Southeast and the Caribbean, remains in business, and the mill's owner has not given any sign that it plans to go anywhere.

Several years ago, Strategic Property Partners (SPP), the development company formed by Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, entered into talks to gain access to the land so that Cumberland Avenue could be extended about 125 feet to the east, where it would cross the tracks and intersect with S Meridian Avenue.

That would create a new entry point into Water Street Tampa, which eventually will include 9 million square feet of residences, offices, three hotels, parks, stores and restaurants, as well as a new medical school building for the University of South Florida, a relocated Museum of Science and Industry and Amalie Arena. It also would create a new east-west connection between the southern part of downtown and the Channel District.

As part of its suit, City Hall had sought to keep trains off the spur entirely from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. It also wanted trains to comply with a city ordinance that bans trains from blocking many intersections for more than five minutes at times of busy traffic.

That "would impair and restrict CSX's operational flexibility and capacity to conduct rail transportation operations in the rail yard as needed in the future," CSX director of strategic planning Christopher Maffett said in a sworn statement filed in the lawsuit.

CSX tries to avoid using the rail yard during rush hour, he said, but can't always do that. On Friday afternoon in May, for example, a CSX train blocked a crossing at E Twiggs Street for 20 minutes.

Likewise, ConAgra plant manager Foster Grant III said in a similar sworn statement the limits suggested by the city would "interfere with both (the flour mill) and CSX's rail operations."

Now that the city has dropped its suit, what happens next is not clear.

"Ardent Mills learned of the city of Tampa's notice of voluntary dismissal of its eminent domain case late in the day on July 17," said Mary Ann Strombitski, a spokeswoman for Ardent Mills, a joint venture between ConAgra and two other agri-business companies, which owns the flour mill. "The city has not provided any details regarding its future intentions."

Strategic Property Partners spokeswoman Ali Glisson on Tuesday referred questions about the impact of the withdrawal of the lawsuit to City Hall, which has along with Hillsborough County agreed to reimburse SPP for tens of millions of dollars worth of road, drainage, water and sewer and other infrastructure work. SPP is doing that work in phases and was aiming last year to close the gap between Cumberland and Channelside during a phase of infrastructure improvements targeted to be complete this summer.

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