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Tampa riverfront park plan hits snag on price of land

"The owner wants a ton more money than we have" for the Sulphur Springs tower site, says Mayor Dick Greco.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2000


TAMPA -- Plans for a riverfront park around one of Tampa's most recognizable landmarks could fall apart because the city and the property owner can't agree on a price.

The city won state and local grants to buy 13 acres, including the historic Sulphur Springs water tower, for a botanical garden, open fields and fishing docks on the Hillsborough River.

How much the city has offered developer McDill Columbus Corp. is a secret.

But both sides say they are miles apart, and the company wants to sell a corner of the site to Walgreens for a drug store. A rezoning hearing is set for May 25.

"The owner wants a ton more money than we have," said Mayor Dick Greco. "I would love to have this property for the community. We're not going to let it go. We'll see if there's some middle ground."

Residents of the hardscrabble neighborhood and advocates for the Hillsborough River are angry that the park project may be unraveling.

They sent Walgreens executives a list of 18 alternate sites. And they criticize Tampa officials for not scouring the city's budget or seeking private money to sweeten the offer.

"I can't figure out why the city's sitting on its hands instead of getting some money together," said Janet Stanley of Friends of the River, a group that is seeking donations for the project.

The 214-foot-tall, gleaming white tower just west of Interstate 275 is a familiar sight to residents, commuters and visitors. Built during Florida's 1920s land boom, the tower supplied water for an amusement arcade and nearby homes. It's been a marketing gimmick for a drive-in theater, a place for young climbers to get their kicks and, most recently, namesake for a failed commercial development.

McDill Columbus announced plans in the 1980s for the Tower, a $120-million complex of office space and a 275-room hotel. The company never found a major tenant and abandoned the project. McDill Columbus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors this year.

The city, meanwhile, had already won grant approval from the Florida Community Trust and the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program to buy the site.

Greco envisioned a garden filled with native Florida plants, a rare patch of green among the liquor stores, cheap motels and pawn shops on Florida Avenue. He talked about connecting the park under I-275 to the new Sulphur Springs pool.

The two grant programs can spend only as much as independent appraisals value the property. The city didn't budget any of its own money for the park, Greco said.

McDill Columbus officials were shocked by the offer, said David Smith, an attorney representing the company in its rezoning petitions on the property.

He heard from company officials that the city offered $1.6-million -- half or one-third of what his clients say the 13 acres is worth. Walgreens would pay about that much for the 2-acre corner, Smith said.

If McDill Columbus gets the rezoning to sell that piece of the property, the company might sell the remaining riverfront land -- including the water tower -- for what the city is offering for the entire 13 acres, he said.

"My client's trying to be reasonable. This is a difficult situation," Smith said.

But selling a piece of the property could endanger the state and local grants, said Ron Rotella, special consultant to the mayor.

Both grant applications stated the city would buy the entire site. State and local officials would need to re-examine the plans and might insist that the city apply from scratch, said Peter Fowler, a county parks manager who helped prepare the applications.

"They'd have to look at the impact on the leftover property," he said. "It obviously would diminish the quality of the project in the eyes of the (agencies)."

Friends of the River, a non-profit group, is asking for donations for the park purchase. Checks can be made out to Friends of the River Inc., and mailed to AmSouth Bank, 3902 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, FL 33629-5016.

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