TEMPLE TERRACE — The new year brings hope that construction will stir up the dust that has settled over the Downtown Temple Terrace project, idle for more than two years.
Toward that end, the City Council last month made two key moves: It agreed to pay about $1.75 million to settle a court case and dissolve the partnership with its third developer, Vlass Temple Terrace; and interviewed candidates for a director whose sole job will be to oversee the city's redevelopment efforts.
The city is eager to restart work on the $150 million, Mediterranean-style community of offices, businesses, residences and a cultural arts center. The village, covering 29 acres on the east side of 56th Street from Bullard Parkway to the Hillsborough River, would serve as the downtown this 90-year-old city never had.
For guidance, the city can look back at what went wrong with the Vlass partnership.
One lesson is to make sure the contract is ironclad, said City Manager Gerald Seeber. He believes language in the contract with Vlass was too vague and open to subjective interpretations. That, he said, "leads to disagreements, as we saw.''
A key obstacle was the look of the proposed apartment buildings at the site's northeast corner. The city wants shops on the first floors, which would give the area a "Main Street'' feel. Vlass argued that such a design would make it difficult to draw retail or residential tenants to the buildings.
The demand for residential over retail was not spelled out in the contract, said David Smith, the Tampa attorney for Vlass. He said the document called only for mixed use, meaning that retail could be placed near the residences but not necessarily on the first floor. He noted that Vlass agreed to fit out the first floor for eventual conversion to retail and promised to market it as retail space for a while.
The contract did require residential-over-retail, said Temple Terrace City Attorney Mark Connolly, because it mandated that the developer follow the city's zoning plan for the redevelopment area, and that plan called for shops on the ground floor of the residential buildings.
Smith said he thinks the real reason the City Council turned against Vlass was the outcry from residents once they realized that Vlass planned to build apartments rather than condominiums. More than a dozen residents spoke out against the plan to build apartments during a 2012 public hearing. Some feared that the apartments would eventually deteriorate and become rent-subsidized housing for poor people, like many of the apartment buildings across 56th Street. Residents had wanted the stability of condominiums, Smith said, though the market for them had evaporated.
Smith said the developer had planned luxury apartments for upwardly mobile millenials. "They were going to be well-appointed, with granite counter tops and top-of -the-line appliances.''
Last year, the city sued Vlass, charging that the developer had breached the contract by failing to start building the cultural arts center on time. Vlass countersued, charging the city had failed to use "reasonable discretion'' to change plans in light of a weakened economy and therefore had forfeited rights to the undeveloped portions of the property. Had the two parted amicably, the contract called for Vlass to return that property to the city after the city reimbursed Vlass for any work done on it. Vlass offered to sell the property back to the city for nearly $3.9 million.
Connolly predicts that the structure of city's deal with any new developer will be different, "where the developer is likely going to be paying the city cash for the property.''
Catching a lot of heat for the Vlass deal is former Mayor Joe Affronti, who cast the deciding vote on June 30, 2009, to hire Vlass and turn the property over to the company with the expectation that Vlass would build the village according to the city's vision.
On that day, then-council member Mark Knapp was absent, attending his son's baseball game out of town, and the rest of the council split. That triggered a provision of the city charter allowing Affronti, a longtime proponent of Downtown Temple Terrace, to cast the tie-breaking vote.
At the next meeting, Knapp complained that he couldn't understand why the vote had to take place when it did. He said he would have voted against it. Michael Vlass, president of the developing company, insisted on taking the vote on June 30, Affronti said, because he was tired of the back-and-forth negotiations with the city planning staff.
Former council member Alison Fernandez said the contract was amended several times during the marathon June 30 meeting, and she voted against it because she had not had time to fully study it.
Affronti endured more criticism two years later when Vlass unveiled a life-size statue of the mayor at the site of the gazebo in the northern section of the property. He said the gesture surprised him, and he later told Vlass he felt the statue would create even more opposition among residents.
Affronti said he now wishes Vlass hadn't put up the statue. He related a recent comment from a resident, who asked if the former mayor planned to put the statue in his yard now that the Vlass project has fallen through. Affronti replied that the statue is city property, and it's up to city officials to do with it what they wish. "If they want to melt it, that's fine. I don't care.''
The former mayor believes that in dissolving the partnership with Vlass, the city missed its best chance to build a Downtown Temple Terrace.
"I think they're going to have a hard time getting a good, quality developer,'' Affronti said.
Smith, the Vlass attorney and a former Tampa city attorney, said the Temple Terrace City Council tried to micromanage the Vlass project, and members should take a different tack with a new developer.
"What they need to do is get a general concept of what they want to do, find somebody they trust, vet the developer in terms of financial ability ... and let the developer do what he does," he said.