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Developer considering 'all options' after Tampa rejects apartments proposed near Oxford Exchange

Plans for the Altis Grand Central called for two apartment buildings, five and six stories tall, with a parking garage in between.
Plans for the Altis Grand Central called for two apartment buildings, five and six stories tall, with a parking garage in between.
Published Sep. 12, 2015

TAMPA — After a marathon — and contentious — hearing that lasted until early Friday morning, the City Council denied a zoning change needed to build Altis Grand Central, a mixed-use project with 296 apartments proposed near the Oxford Exchange.

Plans called for two apartment buildings, five and six stories tall, at 504 W Grand Central Ave., north of W Cleveland Street, and between S Magnolia and S Cedar avenues. Between the two buildings would have been be a nine-story parking garage, topped with a pool, two-lane bowling alley and club room for residents.

But opponents argued the project was not a good fit, and most council members agreed.

"The biggest issue in front of us tonight has to do with the context of the neighborhood," council member Harry Cohen said before the vote. "There are an awful lot of places in Tampa where I would vote for this project in a heartbeat. But this is a very unique neighborhood, between the brick streets, the historical character and the unique businesses that have grown up."

Still, the controversy might not be over.

Later on Friday, a representative of Altman Development Corp. released a statement saying developers are thinking about what to do next, including possibly taking legal action, and expect to have a decision next week.

"We are seriously considering all of our options," it said. "We clearly demonstrated we met or exceeded the requirements of code." Without elaborating, it added, "unfortunately, several questionable issues occurred before and during the public hearing that we must consider and review more carefully."

Opponents of the project packed the council's chambers, led by Oxford Exchange owner Blake Casper.

Casper, who also owns 52 McDonald's restaurants, launched a campaign on social media, #TampaDeservesBetter, to rally opposition to a project that would go up across from his popular restaurant and bookstore at 420 W Kennedy Blvd.

Critics told the council Altman's project would bring a "suburban-style" project to an urban neighborhood and would result in the removal of three old buildings and all the trees on the site, including two healthy live oaks that meet the definition of "grand trees."

"I'm not here tonight because I need to protect the Oxford Exchange's business," Casper told the council. "I'm here because Tampa deserves better, and we can do better."

Casper or others concerned about the project also talked or met with six council members — everyone but Charlie Miranda — before the rezoning hearing. Casper's contacts ranged from briefly stopping by Guido Maniscalco's table while the councilman had coffee at the Oxford Exchange to requesting and having separate meetings with Lisa Montelione, Mike Suarez and Frank Reddick.

Under the city's rules, council members were required to base their decision on testimony and evidence presented during the public hearing, not on conversations that took place before.

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All six said they told those who approached them about the project that they couldn't discuss it outside the hearing, and said they could make a decision based only on the evidence presented Thursday night. Those who met with Casper said they did not discuss the project with him and said they stopped him when he brought it up.

"We ended up talking about McDonald's," Reddick said. "That's all we talked about."

During the hearing, Tampa General Hospital, Buddy Brew Coffee and the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association all weighed in against the project, while the 700-member First Baptist Church of Tampa came out in support.

The Boca Raton-based developer had intended to begin construction in spring 2016 and to move the first residents in by summer 2017. The developers said they adjusted their plans in order to "complement the existing character of the community," but that didn't satisfy the opposition, or the council.

"Based on what we heard from the citizens it doesn't sound like there were a lot of concessions on your side," Montelione told Altman representatives before the vote.

Suarez made the motion to deny the rezoning request, saying the developer didn't show that protecting the trees would deny it a reasonable use of the property. Montelione offered additional reasons it was incompatible. The vote was 5-1, with Miranda casting the only no vote. Yvonne Yolie Capin was absent at the vote.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.