Residents of Harbour Island near downtown Tampa are once again rallying against a proposed hotel that would operate near their community, after a developer threatened a lawsuit against the city if the hotel is not allowed.
The plan for the hotel was proposed by Liberty Group, also known as Liberty Hospitality Group, operated by CEO Punit Shah. The group wants to construct the hotel at 800 S. Harbour Island Blvd., just feet away from the residential community’s entrance gates.
In May, Tampa City Council shot down Liberty’s proposal for the 12-story hotel in a 4-2 vote, after several residents spoke against the development because of the disruption it would cause in their everyday lives.
But council is set to rehear the plan on Nov. 10, after the developer threatened a $6.6 million lawsuit, then put the lawsuit on hold in order to seek mediation with the city and residents of the neighborhood.
On July 20, Tampa City Attorney Cate Wells warned Harbour Island residents in an email that because of the potential lawsuit, they should not contact city council members with their concerns—even though the First Amendment is supposed to protect the public’s right to express grievances to their government.
“In light of the pending litigation, the City Attorney’s Office respectfully requests that you NOT contact members of City Council, verbally or in writing, while the litigation remains pending,” Wells wrote. “To do otherwise, continued communications with City Council could have unintended consequences and result in one or more members of City Council recusing themselves from any future hearings involving this project.”
Wells works under Mayor Jane Castor, who received a $5,000 donation for Liberty Group to her “Tampa Strong” PAC, according to campaign records. And an open house invitation from April to discuss the proposed hotel shows that a member of the PR firm Ballard Partners was the main contact for the event. Mayor Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, is a managing partner at Ballard.
A representative from Ballard Partners told CL it is no longer representing Liberty Group.
To back up Well’s reasoning for sending the email, Smith directed CL to a state statute.
Statute 286.0115 says that public officials can receive communications about quasi-judicial subjects, but that it must be made public record before the local government’s decision. The law also says that people may not be prevented from communicating with the government about land use decisions.
Also, state laws don’t override constitutional rights. Smith did not respond after CL pointed this out to him.
The push to install the hotel leaves Harbour Island resident Susan Doyle wondering if the hotel will be forced into their community against the will of many who live there.
“The construction alone would seriously impact our health and safety,” Doyle told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Not to mention the issues of getting in and out of our community, and all the noise and other issues we’ll have to deal with if it’s built.”
And Doyle says it seems odd that the city would rehear Liberty’s rezoning request after denying it earlier this year.
“There’s something going on here,” Doyle said.
On Aug. 31, Jacob Cremer, a lawyer representing Liberty Group, spoke at a recorded meeting and discussed mediation between his firm, Stearns Weaver Miller, and the city.
“Obviously, we disagree with City Council's decision,” Cremer said. “And because of that, we filed a lawsuit challenging that decision. We agreed with the city to essentially put that on hold so that we could focus on this proceeding and try to come to a resolution, a sort of litigation.”
Cremer said that the damages incurred by Liberty due to council’s vote in May were estimated at $6.6 million dollars.
On Nov. 10, city council will hear Liberty Group’s request again, CEO Punit Shah told CL via email.
Shah said that the current building is a single story, obsolete structure originally constructed as a sales center for Harbour Island, and that Liberty wants to improve it.
“We, as experienced commercial real estate developers, are confident that a boutique hotel branded as an AC Hotel by Marriott, would be a significantly beneficial addition to our neighborhood and the Downtown Tampa market,” Shah wrote in an email. “We have proven the positive impact in our community with the development of the Aloft hotel in downtown Tampa, and the dual-branded Hilton + Starbucks we developed in the Channel District.”
Shah said that the northern area of Harbour Island, where the proposed hotel might be located, already consists of high density mixed-use buildings, including the Westin Hotel, Harbour One, two office buildings, the Harbour Island Athletic Center, along with the American Social and Jackson’s restaurant.
“The AC hotel will create desperately needed jobs for the workforce, contribute millions of dollars towards property tax and tourist development tax revenues, and act as an needed amenity to the Tampa Convention Center, Amalie Arena, Tampa General Hospital, and the Downtown Tampa MSA,” Shah said.
Shah was not able to comment on the effect of the proposed litigation against the city, and if that had any impact on council rehearing the project in November.
But there’s a whole group of residents, which include neighborhood associations, that don’t agree with Shah and Liberty Group’s perspective.
Lawrence Premak, President of the South Neighborhood Association (SNA), told CL that there’s a big difference between Shah’s proposed hotel and other businesses that are not as close to the neighborhoods.
“Many of those businesses are separated by Knights Run Avenue, a wide road,” Premak said.
And as far as the Harbour Island Athletic Center goes, Premak says it makes sense to have such a building close to the community, whereas a large12-story hotel building would create disruption.
The SNA has retained its own lawyers to represent residents in their efforts to stop the hotel.
“The hotel doesn't fit in the neighborhood from an architectural, commercial or traffic perspective,” Premak said. “And it really negatively impacts the community.”
Premak says it’s important for the city to consider the disruptive aspects that the commercial operation of a hotel can have on a community.
“The back end of hotels is usually all the trash compactors, all the food deliveries and everything else,” he said. “And that is literally just feet from the entrance to our neighborhood.”
UPDATED 10/14/22 11:25 p.m. Updated to make clear Ballard Group's early involvement with Liberty Group.