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David Straz raises questions about high-rise project near Tampa arts center that bears his name

Published Feb. 2, 2013

TAMPA — So who else might have questions about that 36-story tower proposed next door to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts?

Well, for starters, there's David A. Straz Jr.

On Friday, the prominent Tampa businessman, philanthropist and patron of the arts said he had questions about:

• The project's impact on parking. "Quite a bold project to put in the middle of an arts district that is already suffering from parking problems," Straz said.

• The plan for the tower's 350 units to be rental apartments rather than condominiums, which Straz said "would be more in keeping with that arts district." The issue, he said, is not who would live there, but that housing built for sale tends to be higher-quality construction than rental property.

• The degree to which neighbors such as the Straz Center itself, the John F. Germany Public Library, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children's Museum will be involved in the conversation about plans for the high-rise.

"I really haven't seen the mock-up and the proposal other than in a very preliminary way, but I do think if changes are going to be made or things are going to be done in the arts area, then No. 1 it ought to be something that's really good for the city, and No. 2, that all the stakeholders ought to be involved in it," he said.

Last week, former County Commissioner Jan Platt wrote Mayor Bob Buckhorn to raise concerns about parking and stakeholder participation on behalf of the Friends of the Library of Tampa-Hillsborough County.

Now comes Straz, who is in a unique position to make himself heard if he desires.

First, while he is not on the board of trustees or the executive committee of the Straz Center, he is on the board of the center's foundation, and his name is in lights on the building itself. That happened in 2009 after he and his wife Catherine gave the center a gift estimated to be around $25 million.

Straz also has been a key political supporter for Buckhorn. In the 2011 mayor's race, Straz first backed former Mayor Dick Greco, but he switched to Buckhorn after Greco was eliminated in the primary. Buckhorn called a news conference to announce the endorsement and named Straz to lead his transition team after he was elected.

Now Buckhorn is driven to see this project succeed. As proposed by developers Greg Minder and Phillip Smith, the $81 million tower would be expected to bring 500 new residents to downtown and generate about $1 million a year in property taxes.

The mayor said he hasn't talked to Straz about the project but has heard about some of his concerns. Straz said he hasn't formed an opinion yet and won't until he gets more facts. He plans to attend a meeting Monday of the center's full board of trustees, who are expected to discuss the project.

And if Straz were to come out against the tower?

"It would be unfortunate," Buckhorn said. "Obviously, I treasure his counsel."

In an ideal world, Buckhorn said, the tower would be a condominium project, but the market is not financing condos.

"The building is being constructed so it could be converted down the road, so that you could have ownership," he said.

Buckhorn said the apartment project will activate the riverfront and benefit the city in other ways. Using money from a $4 million sale of the land for the tower, City Hall plans to reconfigure Cass and Tyler streets so that what is now fast-moving, one-way traffic is on a safer grid of two-way streets.

As part of the project, the Straz Center will end up with a larger and much improved arrival plaza. And the developers have agreed to make an undisclosed contribution to the performing arts center.

David Straz said "the motivating force" shouldn't be whether the center gets some money out of the project.

"What should be the motivating force is whether it would be good for the city, because this is permanent," he said.

Buckhorn said city officials and developers worked with the Straz Center's executive committee, which he said first somewhat opposed the idea because of the mass of the tower. While not on the committee, Straz was privy to that initial discussion and saw what committee members were concerned about.

After revisions and efforts to give the executive committee a better idea of the streetscape and how the tower would fit into the area, the committee voted last month to support the project.

"We worked hard to get there," Buckhorn said. City officials say they and the developers have already reached out to Hillsborough County, which oversees the library, as well as the Straz Center and the Tampa Museum of Art. And they said that outreach will continue.

"We're going to make sure that center is treated with the dignity that it deserves," Buckhorn said. "When we are done, I think that project will prove to be a tremendous asset for the center and will solve a lot of problems that the center has had for a long time that the city wasn't in a position financially to be able to deal with."