Tampa’s Rome Yard bid hearing has both sides crying foul

The city bid process for 18 acres of prime West River real estate ended up before a hearing officer Wednesday.
Officials from the city of Tampa, Related Group and Invictus Development LLC attend a protest hearing about the Rome Yard bid Wednesday.
Officials from the city of Tampa, Related Group and Invictus Development LLC attend a protest hearing about the Rome Yard bid Wednesday. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published May 12, 2021|Updated May 13, 2021

TAMPA — Five hours of legal arguments Wednesday provided the latest glimpse into a controversy over Tampa’s bid process for a prime piece of West Tampa real estate.

At issue: A Tampa development firm, Invictus Development, LLC, formally protested the city’s decision in March to choose Related Urban Development to build a mix of retail, residential and cultural amenities on 18 acres of an old city truck yard, dubbed the Rome Yard because of its proximity to Rome Avenue near the Hillsborough River.

Related already controls the adjacent West River development project.

The protest by Invictus received a formal hearing before an administrative hearing officer Wednesday at the city’s development services building on North Boulevard.

Invictus argues the city didn’t follow its own bidding rules when it threw out minority, women and small business outreach scores from Invictus.

Invictus attorney Lanse Scriven also argued that Related violated bidding rules on keeping silent during the selection process, because company representatives attended a mayoral press conference in March announcing Related’s win and traded emails with city officials before the city released its final decision on March 17.

A key point of disagreement: the role of Joe Robinson, a longtime West Tampa activist and engineer, who as a member of the city’s selection committee made the motion to throw out Invictus’s minority scores.

Robinson said the committee wasn’t bound by scores compiled by city staff. And attorney Eric Singer, representing Related on Wednesday, said the developer modified its bid to provide plenty of minority participation.

Related’s original proposal trailed Invictus in minority, women and small business outreach by a wide margin.

“We believe (Robinson’s) motion, which was passed, unequivocally demonstrates there was a violation of the RFP,” said Scriven.

Senior assistant City Attorney Toyin Aina-Hargrett portrayed Robinson as a longtime civil rights activist who was active in the community.

She said the Tampa Bay Times had written “salacious” articles that were “unsubstantiated,” casting aspersions on both Robinson and the city.

Invictus, she said, had also tarnished the reputation of Florida’s third-largest city. The company’s protest was an “assault on the integrity of dozens of professionals involved in this process,” Hargrett said, adding there was “no need to allude to conspiracies.”

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Singer said Related did nothing wrong.

City officials invited Related to the news conference, he said, and the emails between Related and city staff before the announcement just involved logistics for the event.

Singer said it was Invictus that violated bidding rules by contacting non-eligible city employees in December, including city Community Redevelopment Agency director Michelle Van Loan. Van Loan is in charge of the city’s redevelopment areas.

Robinson’s actions were within the city’s rules, Singer said, and the claims by Invictus were a wild attempt at innuendo and confusion.

“To suggest an impropriety without evidence is problematic,” Singer argued. “It’s a remarkable claim.”

Related’s attorneys didn’t address the role of Alex Castor, the mayor’s nephew who works for Related and arranged a tour of West River the same day that Ana Cruz, the mayor’s partner, spent hours with Related founder Jorge Pérez touring the city and lunching together.

Neither did the city.

Invictus attorneys asked the administrative hearing officer to consider a Times story detailing Cruz’s explanation for her time spent with Pérez. That story was posted online Tuesday and appeared in the print edition Wednesday morning.

Cruz and Pérez’s representative told the Times that the two had just discussed art during Pérez’s Feb. 9 visit to Tampa, when he toured West River after arriving at the site in a transport van with Cruz.

Cruz said she didn’t go on the West River tour, nor did she discuss any city business with Related or business by her own firm, Ballard Partners, with Pérez’s company.

Related hired her firm, Ballard — but not Cruz— to help them prepare for the bid presentation in March.

But when?

Related has not provided the details of the Ballard contract after it was requested Tuesday by the Times. It is unclear if Ballard had been hired before or after Cruz’s excursion with Pérez or how much the high-profile firm was paid for its work.

The hearing officer is expected to issue a decision within about a week.

Mayor Castor didn’t comment on Wednesday’s proceedings.

“Per our policy, we aren’t commenting on pending litigation,” wrote Castor spokeswoman Marley Wilkes in a text message after the hearing ended.

The Tampa Housing Authority is Related’s partner on the Rome Yard bid. In February, the housing agency renewed a contract with Robinson (in which he hadn’t been paid since 2015, according to THA records) for up to $75,000. Housing agency officials have said they don’t see a conflict with Robinson’s contract or his actions on the selection committee.

Robinson’s housing agency contract was not discussed by the city, Related or Invictus at the hearing.