TAMPA — The second time was much like the first time for Punit Shah’s bid to build a hotel on Harbour Island.
Residents of the gated communities on the south end of the island packed City Council chambers Thursday night, filling up an overflow room at City Hall to oppose the project. And, like the first time residents showed up in big numbers in May, Council members shot down a proposed AC Marriott property, a brand that emphasizes modern, European-style design and cuisine.
The 4-3 vote to reject a special magistrate’s finding in support of a revised proposal to shave the height of the building from 12 to 10 stories and make other concessions to address traffic and pedestrian issues.
Bill Carlson, who missed the May vote, voted against the project. So did Lynn Hurtak, who earlier had cast one of just two votes in favor of it.
Hurtak, who faces a stiff challenge for her citywide seat from former state Senator Janet Cruz, said she voted to reject the proposal “because it’s not the same as what we approved” in May.
Hurtak wasn’t alone in changing her mind.
Orlando Gudes, who voted against the project in May,voted to accept the special magistrate’s recommendation, saying he thought the city would lose in court.
Joseph Citro, an ally of Mayor Jane Castor, had voted no in May. On Thursday, he voted yes. Luis Viera again voted in favor of the hotel plans.
But Charlie Miranda and Guido Maniscalco voted as they had in May — against the project. The Council’s vote sends Liberty Hospitality Management LLC and developer Punit Shah back to the special magistrate, which city attorneys warned could lead to a lawsuit against the city.
Shah released a statement after the vote saying he was disappointed by the Council’s decision, noting that city staff had recommended approval twice.
“The hotel would have created desperately needed jobs in our community, built tourism, and boosted the local economy. It is disappointing that this City Council will not support our efforts to enrich the Harbour Island and downtown Tampa community. We hope they reconsider their decision in future board meetings,” Shah said.
Harbour Island residents rejoiced. They argued that the hotel was too big, didn’t fit into the neighborhood and would exacerbate traffic problems for residents already dealing with Convention Center and Amalie Arena logjams. Some residents, like Sam Hallenbeck, drew a contrast between the urban environment north of Knight’s Run and the “suburban oasis” south of the gates where they live.
“Over there is the city. Here is suburbia. It works great as is,” Hallenbeck said.
Jacob Cremer, Shah’s attorney, characterized that sentiment as “not in my backyard” on steroids referring to the “gates that keep the rest of us out.”
“The neighborhood erected those gates to ensure they were protected from future growth of the island,” Cremer said. “They’re essentially asking you to extend their private gates to Knight’s Run.”
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Shah was represented by Mercury Public Affairs, a public relations and lobbying firm with a Tampa office, that has close ties to Mayor Castor. Both of Castor’s communication directors, first Ashley Bauman and then Adam Smith, have worked at the firm, which helped manage the mayor’s 2019 campaign. Mercury is helping Janet Cruz’s campaign. Cruz is the mother of Castor’s partner, Ballard lobbyist Ana Cruz.
Shah told Council members that he had compromised with residents by shaving off two stories from the hotel, lowering its profile, reduced parking spaces and made other traffic and pedestrian adjustments. He mentioned his charitable giving and said the property, which he purchased in 2016, would add much-needed hotel rooms to downtown.
“We’ve waited very patiently for downtown to transform as it has,” Shah said.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story mischaracterized comments made by council member Orlando Gudes.