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Temple Terrace might ‘pump the brakes’ on downtown plans

Mayor Andy Ross says what the city wants and what developers want do not mix.
 
The Fountain Shoppes on 56th Street are part of the downtown development, but more key pieces are needed to bring the final product to life.
The Fountain Shoppes on 56th Street are part of the downtown development, but more key pieces are needed to bring the final product to life. [ John C. Cotey ]
Published March 4

TEMPLE TERRACE — The city of Temple Terrace has some big decisions to make about what it wants in its downtown area concept, and Mayor Andy Ross suggested that it might be time to slow down on pursuing suitors until it can figure out exactly what that is.

Speaking at the Feb. 20 City Council meeting, Ross expressed some frustration with the progress of finding a developer to purchase two parcels of land along 56th Street, south of Bullard Parkway, to develop as part of the city’s first downtown, or City Center, as it has also been referred to in the past.

“I’d like to pump the brakes on this a little bit, we don’t have to press real hard, because we’re not getting a lot of offers anyway,” Ross said. “But I’d like to slow down a little bit.”

The proposed downtown area runs along the east side of 56th Street from Bullard Parkway to the Hillsborough River. It currently includes the Fountain Shoppes of Temple Terrace on the corner of 56th Street, the Winn-Dixie plaza and Enigma Center just south (separated by Chicago Avenue), which is still being developed.

In between those projects, however, is a grassy lot, and just south of the Enigma Plaza is the former home of Steak & Ale, now razed.

Both parcels are roughly 1.8 acres each.

Temple Terrace would ideally like to sell the lots to developers, who could then create projects that would synergize with the existing businesses to create a downtown, something in nearly 100 years the city has never had.

Finding buyers that would build what the city wants — a mix of retail and restaurants in a trendy town center format that can draw a crowd and create foot traffic in the area — has been fruitless, however.

“I’m not as concerned with the Steak & Ale (land), something will come along there,” Ross said. “But the other one is a big open field in the middle of our downtown. And it’s been that way for 25 years.”

Over the years, the city has fielded dozens of offers from developers that were rejected by the council or Temple Terrace residents. If the city wanted, Ross said the land could be sold tomorrow to someone looking to build apartments or a fast-food restaurant.

“But that’s not what we want,” he said. “And so, there’s a reason that we’re not getting what we want. And the development community is speaking very loudly and clearly to us. That it’s not viable. They don’t want to build what we think we want there. They don’t want to build a Dunedin or a Celebration or Safety Harbor, they just don’t want to build it. Because they tell us — a hundred of them have told me — ‘Andy, it won’t work. The reason we won’t do it is because it won’t work.’”

So instead of forcing the issue — “We don’t want to end up with empty buildings” — Ross suggested to the council that he, City Manager Carlos Baia and business relations manager Greg Pauley seek guidance from the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council and developers in the region and see what they think would be a good use for the property, “what would fit there, what would be a benefit to the city, what would work, instead of, you know, ‘This is what we want to build, would you build it?”

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Council member Alison Fernandez said she has long advocated for some external expertise to help guide the direction of the downtown project, as opposed to the city just being pitched by developers.

“I wanted from the beginning for the city to have basically an owner’s rep,” she said. “Not necessarily an employee of the city that would actually manage a project, but somebody who would provide the development expertise from the city perspective.”

Council member Gil Schisler, however, pointed out that Temple Terrace has taken a similar route in the past in trying to solve its downtown conundrum.

Most recently, it hired Martin Hudson as development director in 2015, but he resigned two years later. It also signed a contract with commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield in 2017 to line up potential developers.

Schisler said he was open to Ross’ suggestion, but said the economy isn’t ripe for development.

“So, I have no problem with doing that, reaching out to the EDC, and maybe they have an idea that we haven’t seen, or a concept that we haven’t explored fully,” he said. “But, you know, nobody’s going to do anything with these interest rates. Construction interest rates are killer right now.”

But Ross said there’s always been economic factors to overcome, and it still doesn’t make sense that the property remains unsold.

“We’re sitting on, what, five or six acres of urbanized land that we can’t sell?” he said. “Where does that happen? In Tampa Bay? We got the only vacant land in the region that’s not being sought after.”

Council members Meredith Abel and James Chambers both suggested that now that the city has a pedestrian master plan for the area in hand, it could help pave the way for a future developer interested in enhancing the walking/park area that is planned.

The pedestrian master plan would develop Bertha Palmer Boulevard (which runs between a future downtown and Waverly Terrace Apartments) as a main street with bike lanes and a widened sidewalk for pedestrians, as well as seating and resting areas. A boardwalk and improved pond and park areas further south are also part of the plan, which is designed to encourage people to spend time in the area.

That may not be enough to overcome, however, the possibility of a potential cold, hard truth — the area may simply not be suited for what city leaders would ideally like to see.

“You don’t know how many times, how many restaurateurs I have physically driven down there, how many developers I have driven down there and walked around with, and they all tell me, ‘You know, your demographics don’t support what you want,’” Ross said. “You need to find something else. And I don’t know what that something else is.”

Finding out what that something else is, however, is why Ross appears to be signaling for a reset.

While it may seem a little like starting over — he mentioned wanting a workshop and possibly a town hall with the community before more council debate — he thinks a fresh perspective might be the best way to inspire the process.

“I’m not saying that we totally throw away all our plans,” he said. “I don’t want the public to panic, ‘Oh my gosh, what are they doing,’ I just think we need to talk and about our approach. And what we need to do to gain some traction on this.”

John C. Cotey is the managing editor of the Tampa Beacon. He can be reached at jcotey@tampabeacon.com