Last week was supposed to be a time of celebration when Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority secured a $20 million federal grant for a downtown transit center that has been talked about for more than a decade, City Council member David Allbritton said.
Then City Manager Jon Jennings threw that into question, telling the Tampa Bay Times he had other plans for the center’s site, a high-profile property at the gateway to downtown. He said he told transit authority CEO Brad Miller last year to find another location.
On Monday, the City Council resolved the public spat, confirming its support for the transit center to be built at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Court Street and overruling Jennings’ plan to bring housing and mixed uses to the site instead. Negotiations will restart for a land swap, where the transit authority will acquire the city property while Clearwater will get the site of the transit authority’s current bus terminal on Park Street.
Miller said the federal grant was tied to the location and could be lost if that is changed.
“To risk this grant after all the hard work by so many people is not something I’m willing to do,” council member Lina Teixeira said.
The conflict, however, laid bare the confusion among Jennings and the council members and between the city and transit authority over the project.
Jennings stated he believed the land swap agreement, initiated by a unanimous council vote in June 2021, was “null and void” after the transit authority got news in November that its third attempt to obtain the federal grant was unsuccessful. Jennings said he told Miller on Dec. 6 that the city land was no longer in play for the transit authority and that he “couldn’t have been more clear” about it.
On Dec. 8, Clearwater senior assistant city attorney Laura Mahony sent an email to transit authority attorney Alan Zimmet and his colleague stating “the deal we were working on is no longer going forward” and thanking them for their efforts to date.
Still, the transit authority used the city site as the center’s location when it submitted its 2022 application for the federal grant in April.
In an interview with the Times last week, Miller said he understood Jennings preferred other uses for the site and that the two also discussed alternative locations for the transit center. But Miller said he was not clear that the city’s Myrtle Avenue and Court Street property was off the table for the transit authority because the council had initiated the land swap negotiations last year.
Miller said Zimmet informed him of the assistant city attorney’s email in December but that he did not perceive that as meaning the deal was dead or that the land swap agreement expired.
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“That’s how we interpreted it, that it wasn’t that the deal was gone, it was a delay, we needed more time to find the best site,” Miller said.
Last year, the city was planning to build a new City Hall on the transit authority’s Park Street bus terminal. But in March, the council agreed instead to set aside $30 million to build the City Hall on land at Myrtle Avenue and Pierce Street, next to the municipal services building and police department.
At Monday’s work session, Jennings said he “did not do this in a vacuum.” He said he had conversations with all council members about his alternative plans for the Myrtle Avenue and Court Street property, except for Teixeira, who was elected in March.
“My job is not to just go wing everything just because this is what I believe,” Jennings said. “My job is to talk with all of you and get your sense of what you think and try to craft that on the operational side, and so that is essentially what has been done here.”
However, council members Kathleen Beckman, Mark Bunker, Allbritton and Teixeira said publicly Monday that Jennings never informed them that the Myrtle Avenue and Court Street property was no longer in play for the transit center.
“I do think this is a teachable moment for everybody because I think that the communications sucked, and it’s something we need to avoid in the future,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
Hibbard said, while he supported moving forward with the project, he does not believe the parcels should be swapped until the transit authority has all funding in hand. The transit center estimate has increased almost 30% since last year to $44.5 million due to inflation.
The authority is short $9 million but has plans to ask Pinellas County for funding, Miller said.