Tampa’s Rome Yard development bid in dispute

A Tampa firm has filed a protest against Mayor Castor’s preliminary announcement to award lucrative development rights to Related, a major player in the city’s politics and development worlds.

A rendering of the Rome Yard development submitted by the Related Group 

TAMPA — When she announced a preliminary pick to develop 18 acres near Armature Works, Mayor Jane Castor said her administration’s selection, the Related Group, could make the long-neglected but prime location “transformative.”

She didn’t mention that her nephew, Alex Castor, had a job with the Miami-based developer, during the March 17 news conference at the site, a city property used as a truck yard, but considered the best piece of undeveloped city land by far.

Nor did she mention that Related had contributed $10,000 to her 2019 mayoral campaign through her Tampa Strong PAC. Of course, she wasn’t required to; in Florida it is both legal and common for developers to contribute large sums to mayoral frontrunners.

But the ink isn’t dry on the deal.

Castor was careful in March to say that Related was a preliminary choice. Then, recently, a losing bidder, Tampa-based InVictus Development, LLC, filed a protest. Creative Loafing first reported Invictus’s protest Monday evening and reported Alex Castor’s employment with Related and the donation.

On Tuesday, InVictus president Paula Rhodes said her firm wasn’t able to comment because of the “cone of silence” surrounding the deal until it’s finalized. But Rhodes did confirm that InVictus had filed a protest and received a city response.

No other InVictus officials broke the rules of the bidding process by discussing information about the project with anyone, Rhodes said, including any media organization.

The Tampa Bay Times made a public records request Monday afternoon, several hours before the Creative Loafing story posted, asking for the protest letter and city response. The city has acknowledged the request, but hasn’t released the records. Castor spokeswoman Janelle McGregor said Tuesday they were still compiling the documents.

Peter Van Warner, Related’s development manager for the project, declined comment about Related’s actions as well as Alex Castor’s employment status and relationship to the mayor.

Alex Castor wasn’t able to be immediately reached for comment.

Jane Castor didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. McGregor reiterated in a phone call that the mayor was not involved in the bid selection and confirmed that Alex Castor is the mayor’s nephew.

But Castor’s office did release a statement in response to inquiries by the Times:

“At no point was Mayor Castor involved in any part of this RFP selection process, which was open to the public, transparent, and under the close watch of concerned community members operating independent of the City. This was the first time community members participated in selecting a developer, and that final selection committee ultimately chose the developer they felt would make the biggest investment in their community by providing the most homes along with an opportunity for minority-owned companies to earn a minimum of $75 million–over and above what the RFP required,” read the statement.

In 2019, former Mayor Bob Buckhorn decided to pull the plug on previous development bids for the Rome Yard. On Tuesday, he said he did that because the three bidders, including Related, hadn’t produced proposals he considered fully formed. Mayor Castor then took over the process when she assumed office in May 2019.

Buckhorn declined to comment on Alex Castor’s role or the campaign contribution. But he said Related was — hands down — the best company to handle such a large, complex project.

“They are, in my mind, the top development firm in the state, and I worked really hard to get them here,” Buckhorn said, adding that Related has had multiple projects in Tampa over the past several years, including in the Channel District and Bayshore Boulevard, as well as senior and affordable housing developments in the West River, which lies next to the Rome Yard.

The Rome Yard property is located west of the Hillsborough River, east of Rome Avenue, south of Columbus Drive and north of Spruce Street.

In 2019, a baseball stadium had been proposed by one of the bidders, but no such vision was included in the last round.

Might professional baseball find a place along the Hillsborough River? After all, the Rays coveted the Armature Works site, right across the river, before it turned into a Tampa hot spot.

The Tampa Bay Rays declined comment through a spokeswoman Tuesday.

Related’s proposal includes affordable and market-rate housing, retail space, a workforce training center, musical amphitheater, sculpture gardens, “micro” retail space for local startups as well as an area set aside for “artist work areas.”

The plan also includes a “great lawn” for things like movies or yoga in the park, a resort-style pool and an observation “cigar tower” made of brick made to evoke the historic cigar factories in the area. Related also said it’s partnering with local historian Fred Hearns for a West Tampa Cultural Center and Art Pavilion.

City officials had said they wanted the land to be used for a mix of uses for the public good, including both market-rate and affordable housing. Specifically, the city had said that 20 percent of the new units will be for people earning 80 percent of the area median income ($53,500 for a family of four) with another 40 percent reserved for those making no more than 140 percent of area media income ($93,660 for a family of four).

The development company also committed to a minimum of $75 million in contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses, Castor said in March.

Source: https://www.tampabay.com/news/breaking-news/2021/04/13/tampas-rome-yard-bid-in-dispute/