The first time the Community Benefits Advisory Committee convened, they had to review an unsolicited proposal for a Moffitt Cancer Center, a first for Pinellas County, tied to a housing project, parking garage and hotel at the 800 Block.
After the CBAC was organized and held multiple sessions with the development team at the TPA Group, UPC Insurance and Moffitt, it was clear the cancer center would help residents access the dire care they needed for treatments. However, the lack of affordable housing and low offer to acquire the site ultimately resulted in St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch rejecting the proposal, according to his administration.
During a Wednesday CBAC meeting inside City Hall, the CBAC met to discuss the outcome of the proposal and the inner workings of the CBAC. Though Council Chair Gypsy Gallardo was absent from the meeting, the members shared a unified consensus – the city needs to be clear in what it desires from each project.
“I don’t think any action by this committee led to any issues with this developer. I think they [developers] would like some clarity on the process and what the expectations are. A lot of that is on the staff – that’s us walking through the process with you all, learning what’s working, what doesn’t work so we can provide that information to a developer going forward,” City Director of Economic and Workforce Development Brian Caper said at the meeting.
“I think they [the developers] understood what we were trying to do and were willing to go through that with us. And frankly, at the end of the day, this really came down to a $19.1 million ask of the city and the mayor just felt while the benefits package was strong, it did not represent $19.1 million of public contribution to the project,” Caper said, describing the process as trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Since taking office, Welch has canceled negotiations for the Municipal Services Center building among other proposals, with the exception of the Tropicana Field/Gas Plant redevelopment proposals, in which the process was restarted; however, it was through the city’s issued request for proposals rather than reviewing unsolicited offers.
“There’s a shift in thinking if we can be clearer upfront in our expectations for the developer, what we are looking for, engaging with the CBAC before issuing the RFP [for projects], saying what’s appropriate and what the expectations are, it takes away a lot of the uncertainty and the challenges we are hearing from the community related to doing private-public partnerships with the city,” Caper said.
These were the main takeaways from the different perspectives of the following members:
The comments are edited for clarity.
Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown St. Petersburg Partnership:
- We need to know if it’s OK to speak with developers, which members of this community violated unintentionally, but that’s a bylaw we could change. The process can still be rigorous and adhere to the law, but it can lend itself to us having more informal conversations.
- The project was incredibly cumbersome. If we want to get the benefits, we have to create a process that is easy to understand based on rational and clear expectations and is expedited. There was a five-month lag before we organized. I understand this is our first project, but the applicant had to wait eight months to be told “no.” I’m not questioning the mayor’s decision. We need to be conscious of what we ask developers to do and what is realistic. For this, the developer can’t build a large amount of affordable housing in a steel and glass building because they will lose money immediately unless the city compensates them.
- The private sector is working nonstop. I worry developers see our stumbles, and instead of taking the time to deal with the city’s processes, they can go develop elsewhere. It discourages additional participants and then we will not reap those benefits – all the things we want for affordable housing and apprenticeships.
- The idea of having additional community members from the neighborhoods (which was brought up by several members) where the project is being built, can allow the developers to know what’s needed. Affordable housing is a crisis citywide, and neighborhoods may have other specific needs. For example, I’ve talked about how part of the Coquina Key community’s struggles is it’s a food desert and needs access to a fresh food source at the Coquina Key Shopping Plaza. Our concern is very specific and isn’t a citywide concern.
Ruth Whitney, book author and former professor at the University of South Florida:
- We need to present some type of term sheet and the ad hoc members need to be at the first meeting, so they can be informed. We supported the Moffitt project, but everything else had to be dug up (details from the TPA Group).
Bruce Nissen, co-chair of the CBA Policy Advisory Council:
- In essence, the city would be handing the developer $19.1 million. I don’t feel that it’s unfair to the developer for the city to ask for affordable housing. This developer was asking a lot. The developer isn’t just asking for the right to develop, they are asking to develop plus the exemption. The city is putting sustainable skin in the game. The frustration was we couldn’t quasi-negotiate with the developer early on. It could only happen at a meeting. There needs to be more genuine opportunities from both sides early on for clarity so we can arrive at a solution. I understand the Sunshine Law and bureaucratic procedures, but if we can streamline it and make it shorter, it would be a lot less stressful. For close to an hour, I had a very extensive conversation with the developer about developing an apprenticeship program. That was just one topic, and it wasn’t until the end of the process that they included the program.
- Our hand is very strong in getting as many benefits as possible. Developers aren’t going to disappear. If we rely on private developers through a private-public partnership, we are never going to get there. The city needs to hang onto most of its land and deal with developers through leasing. When the mayor held the public input sessions for the redevelopment of the Trop, people said they wanted social housing and for the city to maintain ownership.
The CBAC will hold another meeting in the near future to review the recommendations presented at the Wednesday meeting.