Experts say Tampa violated state law with its 'City Center' project by privately selecting contractor

There is currently no evidence that the competitive selection process took place when the City of Tampa decided to expand the Hanna Avenue project and retain DPR.

click to enlarge The site for the proposed "City Center at Hanna Ave" project at 2515 E Hanna Ave in Seminole Heights East. - Photo via Google Maps
Photo via Google Maps
The site for the proposed "City Center at Hanna Ave" project at 2515 E Hanna Ave in Seminole Heights East.
The City of Tampa may have violated Florida State Law when it handed a construction company over $100 million to build its new "City Center at Hanna Ave" project, experts say.

The massive project is set for construction on an 11-acre lot, which is currently a vacant factory and warehouse at 2515 E Hanna Ave. in Seminole Heights East. It's supposed to host hundreds of City of Tampa workers once it is constructed.

At a city council meeting on Jan. 13, community leaders and construction experts raised serious concerns  surrounding the project, including what they said was a violation of state law and the Black community being left out of the project.

Multiple speakers claimed the city may have violated multiple Florida Statutes when it gave DPR Construction the design-build contract  to complete the project. DPR was first hired by the city in 2015 for a much smaller project costing roughly $6.2 million. Last year, the city awarded an extra $102  million to DPR to construct the much larger City Center project. That brings the total price tag of the project to more than $108 million.

The project was approved in November of last year. The Tampa Bay Times reported that city council was "persuaded by Mayor Jane Castor’s administration" that the cost  was worth it, voting unanimously to approve it.

At the Jan. 13 meeting, speakers shared documents with council which they said supported their claims that the dealings with DPR were unjust.

After hearing the speakers' concerns, Councilchair Orlando Gudes moved for council to hear more about the project on March 3, after city staff and attorneys review the issues. City officials have refuted the speakers' claims, saying the city followed the law when hiring DPR.

Within the documents sent to council, Florida Statute 287.055 is highlighted. The statute points out that any large construction within a municipality must go through a transparent process that includes qualification procedures, along with competitive selection of contractors.

The law says that Florida cities are required to publicly announce, in a uniform and consistent manner, each time a professional service must be purchased for a large construction project.

"The public notice must include a general description of the project and must indicate how interested consultants may apply for consideration," the law reads.

The statute says that this process is always required, "except in cases of valid public emergencies certified by the agency head." In Tampa, no valid public emergency was declared, yet the city moved forward with the expanded Hanna  Avenue project without acknowledging this aspect of the law.

Following the public announcement and MBAA procedures, what's supposed to follow is the process of "competitive selection."

Competitive selection says that for each proposed project, the city must evaluate current statements of qualifications and performance data of construction firms on file with the agency, together with those that may be submitted by other firms regarding the proposed project.

The city is supposed to have discussions with the firms, and may require public presentations by, "no fewer than three firms regarding their qualifications, approach to the project, and ability to furnish the required services."

There is currently no evidence that the competitive selection process took place when the City of Tampa decided to expand the Hannah Avenue project and retain DPR.

Natalie Neff, an expert in building construction who has worked as project developer for AMJR, a local construction services company, did her own research on the project and presented her findings to city council, in what she called a "book" of files that were later uploaded to the city's website. She asked several questions about the Hanna Avenue project at the Jan. 13 meeting.

"...Where's the required design criteria package for it? Why was it not sent to the public for bid solicitation? Why was there no involvement with NAACP, the CDC or Urban League?," Neff asked council.

Neff, a consultant in facilities and engineering, building maintenance, policy and regulation, said there are a lot of problems with the project as it stands.

"These are only a few of the red flags that are highlighted in this book and I encourage you to read through them read through your database and be transparent with the public," Neff said.

CL reached out to the City of Tampa to get input about the City Center process.

Tampa's Deputy Administrator of Infrastructure Brad Baird said that in accordance with the law, the city followed the Consultants’ Competitive Negotiations Act (CCNA) for the selection of the DPR team.

In an email, he attached rankings by the technical reviewers and the minutes from the CCNA Selection Committee with then Mayor Bob Buckhorn's approval in 2015.

But that paperwork referred to the original $6 million project, not the extra $102 million for the new City Center approved last year.

But the documents presented to council on Jan. 13 explicitly point out that the small project—which involved three city departments—is now a "$102M co-mingled project awarded by convenience to the same firm without solicitation to the public."

Now, the project is slated for 11 departments and hundreds of city employees.

The city did not have an answer to this point made in the documents, and Baird told CL that the Castor administration would be, "addressing these claims when we return to City Council on March 3."

At the same council meeting, several leaders from the Black community voiced additional concerns, which included acknowledging a lack of diversity and inclusion surrounding the project.

"Here we go again, where we have projects coming to East Tampa, and there's no community representation."

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Ernest Coney, CEO of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, said that the project lacks representation from the surrounding community of East Tampa because the city made decisions without proper transparency and input.

"I stand before you somewhat dumbfounded today and upset," Coney said to council. "Here we go again, where we have projects coming to East Tampa, and there's no community representation."

"We wonder why we have high unemployment rate, high poverty rates when we have the city acting as a developer on this project, and did not even consider talking with one of the agencies that has done the most work around workforce and housing and in this district in this area," he continued.

Yvette Lewis of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Hillsborough County branch said she was perplexed by the city's decision making.

"I come to you because I don't understand this Hanna Avenue Project. I don't understand how a city this size did not have any community input," Lewis said. "I don't understand a Hanna Avenue Project going from a renovation to a complete new building without reissuing another request for quotation (RFQ)."

James Ransom represents the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs, where he sits as Chair of Economic Development. He told council that he spoke with Mayor Jane Castor about the issue, and echoed Lewis and Coney's concerns. He said that the Hannah Avenue plan as it stands now "does not include diversity inclusion."

"Is it reasonable for us to be treated fairly? To have a fair opportunity?" He asked council. "We think it is and we know that you know that it is. And we appreciate you doing it in the past when you've stopped some contracts that did not show that the participation was there."

"We're simply asking that you don't do anything to approve contracts that don't intentionally include us in an opportunity to be able to participate," Ransom continued.

Stanley Gray of the Urban League of Tampa asked council if this is what the community should be used to and asked, "Is there something in place that will prevent this kind of action in the future?"

Baird told CL that the city follows the Equal Business Opportunity Act (EBOA) in regards to women and minority owned businesses, which falls under the city's codes of ordinances, 26.5. He sent along a document showing "goal set calculations" to meet the EBOA requirements for the Hanna Ave. project, which the city offered as evidence that the project aims to meet the requirements of the ordinance.

After the input, Orlando Gudes made a motion to have city staff, especially the city's attorneys, discuss the issues with the concerned parties and report back to council on March 3.

"In light of documents that have been received from the community, we ask that staff review the documents and come back with a report in-person in reference to the information that has been given," Gudes said.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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