ST. PETERSBURG — Most of the City Council had too many questions about the proposed new Municipal Services Center. So many that they didn’t want to vote Thursday to explore its feasibility.
At the last City Council meeting of the year — and the last of Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration — city officials presented a resolution to approve the conceptual planning process for the new center, which would house operations like permits and billing.
The plan is to sell the current center at the corner of Central Avenue and Fourth Street downtown and build a new one at the west end of City Hall’s public parking lot. At the other end would be a new apartment building, including 31 percent of units for workforce housing, with retail and parking.
But the first step of the project would be to approve a $500,000 feasibility study that would look at the proposed site’s layout, zoning, pedestrian and vehicle access, circulation, schedule and cost, projected to be $54.7 million. If on track, the whole project would be completed by 2026.
City Council members debated the issue for almost three hours while speakers who showed up to demand a housing state of emergency waited for the open forum portion of the meeting.
“I don’t understand why we’re obligated,” said council member Darden Rice. “We should be able to refer this and ask questions and not feel like we have to give that money tonight.”
City officials and Darryl LeClair, the president and CEO of Echelon, the development group selected for the bid along with Third Lake Partners, said those questions could be answered in the conceptual phase.
“You all are asking all the right questions,” said LeClair. “In order to answer them, you’ve got to go through this next phase.”
The council voted 6-2 to defer the resolution to a committee in the new year. Vice chairperson Gina Driscoll, who earlier Thursday was elected the 2022 council chairperson, made the motion. She wanted to know what impact the newly announced $50 million courthouse for the 2nd District Court of Appeal to be built across the street from City Hall would have on the project.
“For me, this just breaks it wide open for an exciting new plan,” said Driscoll, who asked the city to consider the courthouse’s impact in the upcoming committee.
City development administrator Alan DeLisle said the courthouse reinforces the city project and creates a city and county campus.
“I think they’re following our lead in some respects,” he said, referring to county officials. “We knew it’d be a good chance they’d put it there.”
Council member Robert Blackmon seconded Driscoll’s motion to defer the vote and asked that the city also explore selling the existing Municipal Services Center for fair market price.
Two years ago, the center was appraised for $15 million. The deal would sell the land to Echelon and Third Lake Partners for $12.2 million, but the city would be able to stay in the building rent-free until the new building is complete. The city would sell the parking lot for $10 while it was appraised at $5.85 million.
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“We’re potentially leaving $20 million or more on the table,” Blackmon said. “This deal needs more scrutiny.”
Noting that he was making a controversial comparison, DeLisle likened the current Municipal Services Center to the embattled city marina. Both are aging facilities that are racking up maintenance costs as the council weighs replacing them.
Council members Brandi Gabbard and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman voted against the motion to defer the project.
“To me, kicking it to any committee, you’re just going to be in the same place,” Gabbard said.
Council chairperson Ed Montanari said he saw both sides, but was torn.
“I’m struggling with the complexity of this deal,” he said. “We need to have more information.”