Bidding process on huge Tampa city project comes under scrutiny

The city says it followed state law when it didn’t rebid a project after it grew in scope from $10 million to $108 million.
An aerial photo in January of the site on E Hanna Avenue where construction has begun on a $108 million project dubbed the "City Center" that will house hundreds of city workers in the East Tampa neighborhood.
An aerial photo in January of the site on E Hanna Avenue where construction has begun on a $108 million project dubbed the "City Center" that will house hundreds of city workers in the East Tampa neighborhood. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 9, 2022|Updated Feb. 10, 2022

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor is promising to hire a liaison for her once-in-a-generation City Center construction project to address concerns that the government complex planned in the heart of the city’s Black community will get built with little help from minority-owned contractors.

The announcement comes as Black leaders from the local branch of the NAACP, the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, the Urban League and Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa publicly have lined up to criticize the bidding process. They say minority contractors were unfairly deprived from bidding for work, even as plans grew from a $10 million warehouse demolition project seven years ago to a more than $100 million legacy project to build what might be characterized as City Hall East.

“My initial reaction was: This can’t be true. I thought the city would have done better. The city should have known better,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP.

Rumblings began in November shortly after City Council members approved an initiative from Castor to award the contract to develop 11 city-owned acres in East Tampa at 2515 E Hanna Ave.

The City Center project was awarded to a national construction management firm, DPR, based in California with an office in Tampa. That firm had originally been awarded a much smaller contract in 2015 on the site to demolish a warehouse and come up with plans for the property, which originally included relocating a handful of city departments. But those plans were shelved.

The project resurfaced in 2021, growing into what one city official told council members was the largest city capital project in decades: —161,000 square feet of space that would house workers from 16 city departments. Despite the change in scope, the city decided not to rebid the project.

Renderings of Tampa's proposed City Center were unveiled Tuesday at a news conference at the construction site, 2515 E Hanna Ave.
Renderings of Tampa's proposed City Center were unveiled Tuesday at a news conference at the construction site, 2515 E Hanna Ave. [ City of Tampa ]

Instead, city officials negotiated a new contract with DPR that was 10 times the value of the original.

Related: Questions raised about Tampa's massive City Center project

Tampa officials say they followed state contracting law.

“This is a matter of an interpretation of the statute. That was our interpretation of the statute,” that the change in the nature of the project was permissible, said deputy city attorney Morris Massey.

Deputy administrator for infrastructure Brad Baird, who served as head of the selection committee for the original 2015 contract for demolition of a warehouse on the property, said state law “is not specific to scope” of contracts, adding “there is a scope change in every single one of them.”

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“The evolution of the project fit within its original scope,” said Baird.

Massey and Baird declined to get into specifics on the legal justification for the city’s decision in a Jan. 27 interview. City officials have said they had to move quickly because the new complex will house workers now located in private buildings with leases that will soon expire.

Christopher Atkinson, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of West Florida, examined the city’s original request for qualification. An expert in local bidding procedures, Atkinson said the city’s stated reason for not rebidding the project after its massive change made little sense.

“To me, that doesn’t sound like a bona fide emergency. That sounds like someone didn’t plan,” Atkinson said. “The reasoning was a little suspect to me. It just doesn’t smell right.”

The magnitude of the change of scope in the project makes it “materially” a different project altogether, Atkinson said. And the ramifications of the city’s decision was that it didn’t measure potential interest from other local, national or international firms capable of doing the work.

“You don’t know if this is the best deal you could have possibly gotten,” he said. “I don’t think you can say it’s a level playing field if seven years later there’s a completely different project. It’s hard for me to see it’s the same (project). It’s not the same.”

Joe Robinson, an engineering consultant and economic development chair for the NAACP’s local branch, said he has been involved in hundreds of local bids spanning more than 30 years. He said the city’s process was rife with inconsistencies, including not declaring a public emergency in order to negotiate with what state law deems “the best qualified design-build firm available at that time.”

Baird confirmed that no emergency was declared.

Robinson said he believes the project should move forward, but is concerned about how the city will treat future projects when they change dramatically.

“This sets a precedent going forward,” Robinson said.

James Ransom, chairperson of the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs’ economic development committee, emailed City Council members on Feb. 3 with his group’s concern that the city hadn’t “properly and fairly” awarded the project to DPR. “In haste, it appears the (city) side-stepped (state law) and related Tampa Executive Orders process and procedures,” he said.

The organization recommended modifying the contract to have DPR hire a third-party liaison, a so-called owner’s representative, someone who would monitor the project and help the city meet its stated goal of 35 percent minority participation in the development and construction work.

The group also wants the city to modify the contract to force DPR to bring on a partner with at least a substantial stake owned by a minority for construction management and minority outreach. It also wants DPR to allow minority-owned firms to perform more subcontracting duties and for DPR to contract directly with the Black-run CDC of Tampa for workforce development and apprenticeship models.

The next day, DPR officials told the Tampa Bay Times that they were committed to minority inclusion and have been active in recruiting minority partners since being awarded the contract.

We believe we have demonstrated the commitment to minority outreach since we were selected,” said Patrice Haley, the firm’s national supplier diversity lead. “It’s our intention to continue to move forward with the city and to find other diverse partners to help us with this process.”

DPR later sent an email detailing dozens of workshops and one-on-one meetings with the community and minority contractors that the company has conducted since November. The company also said four out of the 10 members of its design and design-assist team have been certified by the city as black, minority or woman-owned firms.

On Monday, Castor announced in a news release that the city would be hiring an owner’s representative.

“The Hanna Avenue City Center is such a historic and important investment in East Tampa and the entire city that we want extra oversight to ensure we maximize minority participation and apprenticeships,” Castor said in a statement.

Atkinson said municipal bidding processes depend on transparent processes and consistency when applying them. Otherwise, trust in local government can erode, he said.

“Procedures matter. They’re there to ensure fairness,” Atkinson said.