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Investors outline an urban dream

The group wants to use 157 acres to create a new city core with 4,500 housing units, low-income to upscale, and build new homes for those displaced.

DAVID KARP
Published December 5, 2003

TAMPA - A group of private investors led by one-time Olympic promoter Ed Turanchik unveiled an ambitious plan Thursday to transform one of the city's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods into an upscale community with tree-lined sidewalks and tranquil parks.

The project calls for re-engineering 157 acres of land in downtown that now house low-income apartments and the Central Park Village housing project into a single master-planned community where organizers say the rich and poor will live together.

Gone would be the concrete block housing projects, the seedy bars and the boarded-up vacant houses that make the Central Park area one of the city's blighted spots.

In its place, developers would build a massive project stretching from downtown to Ybor City with 3,500 upscale condos and townhouses, 1,000 low-cost units, and retail stores covering 185,000 square feet.

Turanchik's company could construct as many as five high-rise residential towers in downtown, redesign two urban streets into majestic, tree-lined boulevards, and construct a new park and lake downtown.

The company would set up a financing structure to pour millions into a new non-profit, A Foundation for a Better Place, that would pay for concerts, social events, and charity work. It would leverage federal housing money to set up a trust fund to maintain low-cost and public housing units.

Outside of Central Park, the group plans to build low-cost homes on hundreds of lots in east Tampa, West Tampa and Tampa Heights. They would not only provide the lots, but provide the residences, dubbed "Renaissance Homes," too.

Another company called Renaissance Steel would open a plant on 22nd Street in east Tampa to produce the steel panels for the new low-cost homes. The factory, financed by Bank of America, could employ at least 100 new workers.

Turanchik's group claims a list of wealthy investors as backers, and claims to own or have contracts pending on most of the land in the 157 acres.

Besides building homes, the project promises a social re-engineering of the economic order of downtown. Depending on what happens, as many as 2,000 people could be moved to other parts of town. Or hundreds could begin life again in subsidized homes in an upscale neighborhood they could never have afforded.

Promises, problems

Turanchik's unveiling Thursday at the group's new offices featured grandiose promises, beautiful pictures and applause. But the event also foreshadowed the project's huge hurdles.

Outside, the audience could hear chants from public housing activists. Turanchik said the protesters did not understand his plans.

"We know all to well what is going on inside - that is why they don't want us in there," said Sateesh Rogers, from St. Petersburg, a member of the Uhuru movement. "The buildings will look nice, but who will occupy them?"

Rogers was barred at the door from entering, where staff checked people's photo identifications.

Absent were any high-level officials from City Hall, except for Paul Wilborn, the city's creative industries manager. The only elected official attending was County Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican who represents Hillsborough's northern suburbs.

Mayor Pam Iorio said later that she wanted the project to be closely examined. She called public participation "very important."

Unlike former Mayor Dick Greco, who often acted as a city booster at developer kickoffs, Iorio said she won't do that.

"I appreciate more the ribbon cuttings when something is complete," Iorio said. "Where the city helps to celebrate is at the end of the process - after an idea has come to fruition, after there has been all the important civic involvement, when something becomes a reality."

The public process begins Monday when Turanchik will sit down with the staff at the Tampa Housing Authority.

The authority plans to submit an application by Jan. 20 for a $20-million federal Hope VI housing grant to raze Central Park Village. It's the authority's last chance to get those federal funds, because the program is being phased out.

If the authority gets the grant as planned, it could kill Turanchik's dream. He says he needs the housing authority's land to make his project work.

Turanchik's plan

Turanchik wants the authority to abandon its plans and adopt his group's vision as a partner. But Turanchik has shared few details with the authority, whose staff did not attend Thursday's event. Only housing authority board member Gerald White was there.

Turanchik argues that his plans will build more low-cost housing than the authority's designs, and will drive the area's transformation - while the authority's design would block it.

Housing authority executive director Jerome Ryans said he'll listen to Turanchik. But he has to protect the interests of the poor first.

Even if the housing authority approves, it's not clear if the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development would back a joint project.

Turanchik would need to convince more than 2,000 low-income, largely minority residents to trust a privately held group of investors, who would take over their homes and relocate them.

His investors, led by Lazy Days RV Super Center CEO Don Wallace, promised that they truly wanted to improve the lives of the poor. They hoped the project would transform the urban core, not simply turn a profit.

"If I don't make a single penny on this or if I don't get my money back ... I will be the happiest person in the world," Wallace said. To make the project work, "we will have to be willing to say not "what is in this for me - what is in this for us."'

In the courtyards at Central Park, no one had met Wallace or Turanchik. They had only heard rumors of the plans for them.

"Why would you tear down something nice?" asked Inez Priester, 64, who raised her nine children here. People's lives would be improved by taking simple steps like planting flowers and painting walls, she said.

"Because we're right downtown, they want to come in and take it away from us," she said.

Under Turanchik's plan, every resident would get to move to another home by the time bulldozers arrived.

The residents could find their own affordable housing or choose Turanchik's lots. Months or years later, they could move back to the newly designed Central Park, which will be predominantly upscale. About 80 percent of the new residences would sell at market rates from $125,000 to $650,000.

About 980 units out of 4,500 residences would be set aside for subsidized housing. Of those, 257 would be considered public housing units - reserved for the poorest of the poor.

"All we are doing is providing a much wider array of choices," said developer Bill Bishop, one of Turanchik's partners.

Government's role

Next, developers would have to persuade the County Commission and City Council to approve a tax increment financing district for the project. The district allows developers to steer a portion of new property taxes to pay for roads, parks and other capital projects in the new Central Park for 30 years.

Turanchik touted the increased tax base as one of the project's major benefits, saying it could generate $1-billion in new taxes.

But many tax increment financing districts steer as much as 50 percent of the new taxes back into the project. It's not clear how the Central Park tax structure would work. Officials would have to negotiate a deal.

Elected officials, though, were skeptical.

"It seems to me it's being done for the benefit of the developers," said County Commissioner Pat Frank.

Frank, who hasn't seen a concrete proposal, wants to know details.

"My paramount concern is "What does it do to the people who are already there?"' Frank said. "I have a lot of questions."

Commissioner Jan Platt raised similar concerns.

"At some point in time, enough is enough," Platt said. "It's just my observation that the city is already pretty strapped for finances, and that this will further deplete their tax base."

Turanchik also needs government approval to create a community redevelopment area, to obtain public housing tax credits and to pay some costs for new roads, sewers and underground utilities. The city or housing authority might also be asked to use condemnation powers to take away people's land as a last resort.

City Council members also promised to bring skepticism to a plan that may sound good in concept.

"If it is a new, refreshing idea, great," City Council member Rose Ferlita said. "If it's not one of inclusion, then we have an issue there.

"I'm not running away from it and I'm not running toward it."

- Times staff writers Kevin Graham and Bill Varian contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com

The grand plans

Ed Turanchik and his partners at Civitas want to:

Take control of 157 acres, including the Central Park Village housing complex, to build a master-planned urban community.

Design a community that transforms a predominantly poor neighborhood into a mixed-income one, with as many as 1,000 low-income units and 3,500 market-rate residences.

Build a European-style boulevard along Cass and Tyler streets that connects Central Park to the new cultural arts district on the Hillsborough River. Residential high-rises would line the streets.

Develop low-cost housing across the city where displaced tenants of the Central Park housing complex could move. The group has control of at least 250 lots on which they propose erecting manufactured houses called "Renaissance homes."

Fund a nonprofit, A Foundation for a Better Place, using fees paid by residents of the new project.

Open a manufacturing plant in east Tampa to produce steel components for low-cost homes. The material would be used in Renaissance homes and other homes across central Florida.

The players at Central Park

ED TURANCHIK, managing director of Civitas, the urban redevelopment company that plans to redevelop the Central Park Village area. Led the unsuccessful effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to Florida. Helped create Tampa Bay Water, the region's water supplier. Pushed to build a National Hockey League arena in downtown Tampa. A former county commissioner.

DON WALLACE, chairman of Civitas. Chief executive officer, Lazy Days RV Super Center. Major philanthropist.

BILL BISHOP, managing director of Civitas. President, Leslie Land Corp. Former land development director, Newland Communities. Developed Westchase and the FishHawk Ranch.

MANDELL "HINKS" SHIMBERG, board member of Civitas. Developer who built sections of Town 'N Country. Chairman, USF Foundation board. Past chairman, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

RHEA LAW, board member of Civitas. Past chairwoman, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Member, USF board. Lawyer and partner, Fowler White Gillen Boggs Villareal & Banker, which will handle land use and permitting for Civitas.

THOMAS HUGGINS III, board member of Civitas. President, Ariel Business Group, a management consulting firm. Chairman, Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League board. Co-chairman, 1998 Jeb Bush campaign in Hillsborough County.

REX FARRIOR, board member of Civitas. President, Farrior Enterprises LLC, a real estate and corporate investment company.

CHARLEY HANNAH, board member of Civitas. Co-founder, Hannah-Bartoletta Homes. Former NFL player, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Raiders.

DEANNE ROBERTS, marketing and public relations director for Civitas. Chairwoman, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce board. Founder, marketing and public relations firm.

BETTY WIGGINS, director of community relations for Civitas. Former Tampa City Council member. Director, East Tampa Business and Civic Association.

- Sources: Civitas, Times files

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