TAMPA — At 309 feet, the planned JW Marriott at Water Street Tampa is expected to be crowned with what developers have touted as Tampa's highest rooftop bar.
But the 26-story hotel wouldn't be so tall that it interferes with air traffic at nearby Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority decided Thursday.
The aviation authority's board voted 4-0 to grant the developers of Water Street Tampa a height variance for the 519-room hotel at 615 S Morgan St.
Regulations cap the height of buildings in that part of downtown to 200 feet without a variance. Strategic Property Partners, the development company created by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and the Bill Gates capital fund Cascade Investment, told the aviation authority that the standard height limit would create an undue hardship that could force the company to abandon the project.
A study by the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that the hotel would not be a hazard to air navigation as long as it was outfitted with red warning lights. The Florida Department of Transportation likewise raised no objections.
The hotel would be about 1.6 miles away from Peter O. Knight Airport, which puts it well inside a 3-mile envelope where a variance would be needed for a building taller than 200 feet.
That was a concern to aviation authority board chairman Robert Watkins, a private pilot with a multi-engine rating.
Though he supported the variance, Watkins pressed the airport's staff on steps that would be taken to make sure that sunlight bouncing off the hotel's windows does not blind pilots landing at Peter O. Knight.
"That seems to me to be a substantial intrusion into that envelope," he said, adding that he feared that potential "glare and glint issues" could be addressed more than they had.
The hotel's plan "looks very nice, but it looks to me like it's all glass, and it's going to glint and glitter pretty heavy," Watkins said. "You wouldn't want to be on short, final (approach) and have that glare in your face."
In response, airport officials said they would work with Strategic Property Partners on plans to use materials to reduce glare and could require changes, such as non-reflective films that could be put on windows, if it became a problem.
Another aviation authority board member, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, said he hadn't heard any complaints about glare reflected by other buildings downtown.
"With all due respect, Mr. Chair, if we followed that train of thought you would have nothing going on downtown," Buckhorn said. "We need to weigh all of this." Landing at Peter O. Knight, he said, "when you bank over the industrial parts of (Tampa), you're only exposed to that glare for a brief period of time before you start to coming down the channel ... and that's not the main runway, as I understand it."
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A third board member, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl, said that as a pilot there's nothing worse than that kind of glare, but nearby buildings, such as the 297-foot-tall Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, are tall enough that they should block some of the glare.
Along with that lofty rooftop bar, the JW Marriott is expected to feature the city's biggest hotel ballroom at 30,000 square feet, plus a four-story atrium and the ground floor will have a full-service restaurant. The sixth floor will have a spa and fitness area, plus another restaurant with outdoor seating, a bar, an event lawn, a pool and sun terrace.
Developers have said they plan to start construction on the JW Marriott later this month and have targeted an opening date in 2020, before Super Bowl LV in February 2021.
Passenger traffic surges in February
The airport had a big month in February, seeing a 12.5 percent increase in passengers compared to the same month last year, its largest monthly increase 2005.
"If it feels like we're getting busy around here, that's because we really are," said Chris Minner, the airport's executive vice president of marketing and communications.
Spirit and Frontier airlines were the biggest drivers of that growth, with Spirit ending the month up 52 percent and Frontier up 120 percent compared to the same month last year.
International passenger traffic rose 13.6 percent.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times