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Tampa could use eminent domain for road in Vinik-Cascade project

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment still need access to a small piece of land for a key road in their $2 billion waterfront redevelopment.

But there's a problem: The owner of the neighboring ConAgra flour mill controls the parcel. So far, talks between the mill owner and the Vinik-Cascade partnership have fallen short of a deal.

If all else fails, City Hall might go to court to secure the access through eminent domain — a legal process that generally means the government pays for something seen as having a public benefit.

"That is an option," says Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "It is the least desirable option."

How much that could cost is not clear. But Tampa and Hills­borough County already have pledged an estimated $30 million from downtown property tax revenues to reimburse Vinik and Cascade for roadwork and other public infrastructure improvements.

So while eminent domain would be a different process, it would not be unprecedented for the city to spend public money to facilitate the completion of a road project in the development.

Still, Buckhorn said he hopes everyone reaches an agreement without the city having to go to court.

Meanwhile, Strategic Property Partners (SPP), the real estate company formed by Vinik and Cascade, has hired a contractor and announced plans to start $35 million in road and infrastructure construction this summer.

That work is the first step in preparing the company's 40 acres near Amalie Arena for a multiyear project to create a waterfront district with a new University of South Florida medical school building, a new hotel, an office tower, apartments and more.

Part of the road work consists of closing a gap in E Cumberland Avenue, just west of S Meridian Avenue. Doing that will create an east-west route through SPP's project and a new connection from the Channel District to downtown Tampa.

The land in question is owned by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, but it is leased to Ardent Mills, the owner of the ConAgra flour mill just north of the Vinik-Cascade development.

In all, the expressway authority has leased about 4.8 acres to Ardent Mills, a joint venture between ConAgra and two other companies. Authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan said one option being considered could affect just 7,000 square feet of that — or about one-sixth of an acre — located between Meridian Avenue and Cumberland Avenue

Currently, the property is vacant except for a rail spur the flour plant occasionally uses to shift rail cars within its rail yard. The lease is in place as long as the mill is operating.

What Vinik and Cascade need is an agreement granting the public the right to cross over those railroad tracks on Cumberland on their way to Meridian.

Vinik's company would not comment on its discussions with Ardent Mills.

In an emailed statement, Ardent Mills said, "We are excited about Tampa's downtown redevelopment and growth in the area, and are open to working with the city and developers on plans for the area. Just as Ardent Mills embraces safety — both food and people — as a core value, we encourage the area developer to embrace safety for drivers and pedestrians as development efforts move forward."

•••

Generally, when a government uses eminent domain to take property for what's determined to be just compensation, it becomes responsible for covering those costs.

In this case, that money would presumably come from the city, though it's too soon to say which source of city funds, such as gas tax money, revenue from the state, property taxes or something else, would be used.

Most likely, the costs would include hiring an outside law firm, since the City Attorney's Office does little eminent domain work.

But since Strategic Property Partners is doing the road project, could the city turn around and demand to be reimbursed for the costs of the eminent domain action?

City Attorney Julia Mandell did not want to talk about any specific case — especially one that has not even been filed — but she said, "there's case law that is very clear about if you go forward in an eminent domain action, it has to be for a public purpose and cannot be for predominantly a private gain."

And, city officials say, the idea of extending Cumberland Avenue through to Meridian Avenue has been around a long time, much longer than Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment have been in town.

In the 1990s, when he was head of real estate for the port, Bob McDonaugh said Tampa officials told him it was their plan to close that gap on Cumberland. So, they said at the time, the parking garage that the port authority was building over Cumberland on the Channel District side of Meridian had better be tall enough for through-traffic to pass below.

"That was 20 years ago," said McDonaugh, now Tampa City Hall's top economic development official.

More recently, McDonaugh said, developer Bob Abberger likewise planned for a Cumberland connection when he was with Trammell Crow Co. and was working on plans for a 20-story office building at Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive.

As part of that plan, Abberger, who now works for Vinik, discussed using community redevelopment funds to help pay for the road work.

"It was more than a casual conversation," McDonaugh said. "There was engineering done."

•••

And what if there's no agreement? Or what if there's a court case that goes on for a while?

Does that mean no road work?

Not necessarily.

That's because the road and infrastructure work is expected to be done in phases. Other phases probably would go forward even if this issue had not been resolved first.

Buckhorn said he hopes that happens in the next couple of months. He described the idea of the city getting involved to secure the land through eminent domain as a "fall-back position."

"Not," he said, "our preferred option."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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