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Tampa: 9 story/146 unit complex for downtown

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Apr 15, 2004

County Backs Plan For Civitas Parcel

By SHANNON BEHNKEN

[email protected]

TAMPA - Part of the Civitas redevelopment plan, derailed in January by critical county commissioners, is proceeding with special financing given ``a positive spin'' by the county administration.

The Civitas company has turned over its $2.7 million contract to buy about an acre at Cass and Morgan streets in Tampa to The Gatehouse Group, a developer planning to build a $20 million low-income housing complex.

Hillsborough County administrators have pushed the deal forward by working around a missed deadline to find $300,000 in public financing and then trying to smooth the political path ahead, an indication of challenges posed by Civitas fallout.

A letter from County Administrator Pat Bean's office outlining terms of the proposal was rewritten twice to allay staff concerns that supporting a project connected to Civitas would ``be seen as a circumvention of an action taken by the board.''

The letter, sent in similar versions to the county commission and the city of Tampa, called the project a ``great first step'' in redeveloping Tampa's Central Park area.

Bean said Wednesday that the financing and editing of her lower-level staff square with her understanding that commissioners who opposed Civitas were not opposed to future work in Central Park. They rejected a city-backed plan to create special taxing authority to help the company develop 157 acres between downtown and Ybor City.

``The issue the board had with Civitas was ... not that they rejected developing that area,'' Bean said. ``Staff is trying to say the board thought Civitas is bad and we shouldn't allow anything Civitas wanted to move forward. I don't think that's the case.

``The reality is that the city has so many problems now that they don't have the money to spend [on the project]. Why shouldn't the county help develop that area?''

The project, called The Prado Apartments, would be a nine-story, 146-unit building with some town homes and a parking garage. It is strikingly similar to what Civitas proposed for the site, owned since 1986 by a company in Jupiter.

The property, next to the Tampa Housing Authority's Central Park Village public housing complex, was slated to be part of a land swap between Civitas and the authority - until that deal fell through when the county balked at tax support.

Ed Turanchik, the former county commissioner leading Civitas, said steering the land contract to Gatehouse, a Massachusetts company, was the best way to guarantee affordable housing downtown.

``There are so many high- end condominium projects planned,'' Turanchik said. ``There is a need for work force housing downtown, and these guys do great work.

``We have no financial connections with [Gatehouse]. All we will get out of this is the satisfaction that high-quality affordable housing will be built in downtown Tampa.''

Civitas, which worked secretly for two years on plans that extended beyond Central Park, owns or has contracts to buy many properties in the target area. Turanchik said the company is ``weighing its options'' about what to do with the other sites.

Gatehouse President Mark Plonskier said his firm worked with Civitas on the Central Park plan and would have built some replacement homes for public housing residents if the original deal had gone through.

Gatehouse still wants to get in early on plans to redevelop Central Park, Plonskier said.

``I have no idea what more there is to do with Civitas,'' he said. ``Hopefully, this will be the start of something great.''

County Finds Financing

Civitas and Gatehouse finalized their deal in late February. By mid-March, Plonskier said, Gatehouse decided on its plans for the site - and they included state tax credits that hinged on a commitment of at least $200,000 from local government.

Plonskier turned to Don Shea, a man he knew as the former director of the county's affordable housing and code enforcement office.

Under Bean's predecessor, Dan Kleman, Shea was demoted to the solid waste department last spring after he falsified a government report.

Two weeks ago, Bean promoted him to a new post in her office, manager of community services, planning and resources.

Plonskier said Shea advised him to apply for $200,000 in impact fee relief from the county. That hit a roadblock when the application arrived March 17, more than a month after a deadline for such requests.

Mike Rowicki, a county executive planner, said he explained to Shea that the impact fee money already had been allocated. Rowicki said he also was concerned that Gatehouse had not paid the standard $1,200 application fee.

Rowicki said Shea told him to ``find another way to make the deal work'' and suggested using grant money typically reserved for county projects.

Rowicki's boss, Dexter Barge, who succeeded Shea in housing and code enforcement, said he also had concerns because the money had been promised to other developers for at least two years.

Barge was on vacation when Bean signed off to give Gatehouse $86,000 in impact fee relief, which does not have to be paid back, and a $214,000 low- interest loan.

City Money Not Sought

Bean said she checked to be sure there are no legal problems in using such money on a project that's not in the unincorporated county, and her staff reassured her.

``It wouldn't be right for us to not help this project, which is good for the city, just because it's in the city limits,'' she said. ``The city is still in the county, you know.''

Mark Huey, Tampa's economic development director, said the city was not asked to support the project financially. The county asked only for a letter supporting its plan to provide financial aid. Mayor Pam Iorio signed such a letter.

Shea said he took charge of editing the subsequent letter prepared by county staff for approval by Bean, which outlined the project. It was sent to commission Chairman Tom Scott and then from Scott to Iorio.

Shea said his goal was to assure the writing reflected the tone sought by Bean and Assistant County Administrator Bernardo Garcia.

``I was told by Pat and Bernardo that we wanted to send something to Tom and the mayor that had a positive spin to it,'' Shea said. ``This is not some great conspiracy. This is a good, positive project.''

Some commissioners still hadn't heard about the project Wednesday.

Commissioner Jan Platt said she would seek details today, and Commissioner Ronda Storms called it ``very troubling,'' saying, ``I am absolutely going to look into this.''

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