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Civitas plan is off county's table

The Central Park redevelopment project appears to be dead despite a last ditch effort by supporters to save it.

By DAVID KARP
Published January 17, 2004

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Tom Scott says that he might resign as chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission.
A closer look: The Civitas plan
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TAMPA - As the votes slipped away, Hillsborough County Commission chairman Tom Scott leaned back in his chair and looked up.

He had called an emergency meeting Friday to beseech his colleagues to reconsider a redevelopment plan for the low-income Central Park neighborhood. He pleaded, even begged, for them not to kill it. When the vote failed, Scott, a pastor, quoted Scripture.

"I am personally devastated," he said, as reporters swarmed around him.

"I know what it means to be poor."

His voice cracked.

"I know what it means to live in those conditions."

Tears rolled down his cheek.

"I know what it means to be in a house and be cold."

Scott was so distraught about the project's failure that he said Friday he might resign as commission chairman.

He had pushed a compromise on the redevelopment plan that failed in a 3-3 vote. He blamed himself for the outcome, and for the tone of the commission's debate, which he said offended many residents in Central Park. Earlier, he had apologized to residents for the remarks.

But Friday, commissioners were not accepting blame for the failure of the revitalization project. They said the project would have scattered thousands of families and destroyed a community just so developers could profit by building upscale condominiums. They denied charges made by others that their remarks were racist.

"They must be really scraping the barrel to raise issues like that," Commissioner Pat Frank said.

"My record is very clear and longstanding. Much longer than Tom Scott's. And I have known that area longer than Tom has. And I have been down there many, many times, seeing people and talking to them."

Others blamed developer Ed Turanchik, who announced the plan six weeks ago and rushed to meet a deadline for a $20-million federal grant. Turanchik wanted too much, too fast, they said.

In some ways, Turanchik's plan died Friday in front of the County Commission, where it was born five years ago.

In November 1998, Turanchik resigned from the County Commission, frustrated with its infighting.

He thought he could get more done in the private sector and became head of a campaign to bring the 2012 Olympics to Florida. The Olympic bid failed, but out of it came an idea to build a community in the downtown core.

For about two years, Turanchik worked on the idea in secret. He hinted around town that his work might be big. He got investors to put about $5-million into the planning.

Turanchik wanted to create a vibrant downtown neighborhood where rich and poor would co-exist. The new Central Park would be a pedestrian-oriented urban community, like neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago.

Turanchik proposed demolishing Central Park's two housing complexes and replacing them with upscale apartments, which would blend subsidized units for the poor with condos that sold for up to a half-million dollars. There would be parks, a lake and trees everywhere.

He and his partners had been acquiring land since at least September 2002. Records show that's when several trusts were created to purchase land under as surrogates to mask the intent of the broader plan.

In July 2003, the groups closed a deal to purchase the most important piece in their project, one of the two low-income projects.

There was one big piece left: the Central Park housing complex, which is owned by the Tampa Housing Authority.

All year, the authority had been working on a plan to redevelop Central Park by applying for a $20-million federal grant. The authority proposed a 28-acre project, smaller than the 157 acres Turanchik wanted to transform.

On Oct. 21, the government announced a Jan. 20 deadline to apply for the grant.

Turanchik asked the housing authority for the last possible date he could approach them with a new idea. He needed the time to buy more land and finish planning, he said.

They told him no later than early December. But they didn't know the scale of Turanchik's plans.

Turanchik went public with his plans Dec. 4. They called the organization Civitas, a Latin root for "citizenship."

There were immediate signs of trouble. No one from Mayor Pam Iorio's staff attended.

Iorio did not know what effect the plan would have on the poor or taxpayers. She was uncertain such a massive plan could be approved without months of public debate.

Indeed, this week, Turanchik still was meeting with one of Tampa's most prominent neighborhood associations, while negotiating deals with three government agencies.

Even if Civitas had taken months, it would have been tough. Iorio and commissioners were weary of big projects that could cost taxpayers millions. Voters already had subsidized the Florida Aquarium, Raymond James Stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum and the Centro Ybor shopping plaza.

Around the clock, Turanchik worked to change minds. Finally, Iorio signed off on a plan that she said minimized taxpayer risk. She signed it about 1 p.m. Thursday. The City Council ratified it in a 5-2 vote.

About two hours later, it went to the County Commission. There, some of Turanchik's former colleagues resented the pressure Turanchik's timetable had created.

"I once had the opportunity - and I say it's an opportunity - to be physically beat upon in order to get me to do something," Commissioner Ronda Storms said. "And I will just let you know what I chose to do. I chose to take the beating, and you need to understand that. I never respond to this kind of public pressure.

"So do whatever you want to me. When it's all said and done, I'm still going to live (on) Crosby Road, love my husband, my two dogs and my daughter, and I will sleep well at night because I will not be bullied by you."

Earlier Friday, when the project was all but dead, Turanchik's staff gathered at the housing authority for a final meeting.

It felt like a wake. Developers and housing officials mingled in a reception area, speculating on the cause of death. Turanchik patted the backs of new friends and thanked others for hard work.

Turanchik said the vote showed how the commission did not work as a form of government. It showed how the commission could not accomplish goals or even act civilly, he said.

It was the same sentiments Turanchik expressed in 1998 when he resigned from the commission, hoping he could accomplish more from the outside.

Later, he walked down the hall with Scott, one of his commission friends. They left the building, Scott's arm wrapped around Turanchik's shoulder.

- Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached at 813 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 17, 2004, 01:32:39]


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