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Armature Works developers sue Ulele and city of Tampa over use of nearby building

TAMPA — Two of the city’s hottest developers — the companies behind Ulele and the Armature Works — are heading to court over control of an old city building that sits between the hit eateries.

Both want to redevelop the city’s former office of cable communications building, but the owners of the Armature Works claim in a lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court this week that they never got the chance to make a pitch.

Instead, the lawsuit says, the building at the corner of W Seventh and N Highland Avenues was awarded to Ulele’s owners without giving other developers a chance to put in their own proposals.

The case is a stark reminder of how much and how quickly Tampa’s riverfront has changed.

A decade ago, both the Armature Works building and what is now Ulele were vacant husks. At the site of the now-popular Water Works Park, the city had fenced and padlocked the property to prevent vagrants from bathing in the natural spring there.

In contrast, today both Ulele and the Armature Works draw hipster crowds well into the night, shifting the center of downtown Tampa’s social life to the Hillsborough River. That has been a long-standing goal of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has put derelict city properties, including the old federal courthouse, on the market in the hopes of attracting new development.

Riverside Heights Development, Adam Harden and Chas Bruck’s firm behind the popular food hall Armature Works, filed the 189-page lawsuit on Monday. In it, the company claims City Hall didn’t follow a state law or its own procedures requiring it to give public notice before awarding a contract to sell or lease city property.

"Riverside, as a private redeveloper, was deprived of any opportunity to become aware of the city’s interest in disposing of the cable office, and therefore was also deprived of an opportunity to submit a competing proposal for the same," the lawsuit says.

Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said Thursday the city does not comment on pending litigation. City workers have moved out of the cable communications building, which once housed a television production studio.

Ulele spokesman Michael Kilgore said the company had no comment on the lawsuit. He likewise declined to say what the restaurant’s plans could be for the old cable TV building.

"We have very exciting plans," he said, "but especially now, it’s not time to announce them."

In an interview last year, Ulele owner Richard Gonzmart talked of expanding into the 8,000 square feet of the cable communications building with a private dining room overlooking the brewery at Ulele. He also mentioned the idea of using the space for events. Kilgore noted that Gonzmart, who is known to sort through a lot of possibilities as he puts together his business ventures, always "reserves his right to change course as circumstances and ideas change."

Gonzmart, the owner of the Columbia Restaurant Group, submitted a proposal to redevelop the city’s old water works building, a former pump house for the Water Department, in response to a city request for proposals in 2011.

At the time, the area was in dire need of development. The future Ulele was just a red-brick warehouse and the massive structure of the Armature Works, a former trolley barn for Tampa’s streetcar system, sat vacant and tied up in foreclosure and bankruptcy proceedings. The Riverwalk extended no farther north than the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

Gonzmart put in a bid for the water works building alongside three other developers — none of which were Riverside Heights. By the start of 2012, the city picked Gonzmart. The Tampa Bay Times reported at that time Gonzmart had proposed leasing the Water Works building — including the cable TV office — for $1 a year for 20 years and buying the property outright for $500,000 once the city had the legal ability to sell it.

Riverside’s lawsuit said the initial request for proposals did not mention the cable communications building as part of the property. But when the lease between Ulele and the city was signed in 2013, it included a clause that said the lease could be modified to define the "premises" as including the cable TV building.

An amendment to the lease that included the cable offices was signed in February 2017.

Riverside’s attorneys are arguing that amendment wasn’t lawful and calls the lease "invalid" because the city did not advertise the cable building as available.

"Riverside has been deprived of a significant opportunity to redevelop the Cable Office," the lawsuit says. "And, as a result, Riverside has suffered, and continues to suffer, significant economic damages and lost profits and exceed $15,000."

Florida statutes require that any municipality to give public notice at least 30 days before it chooses a party to lease or buy a space it owns. The lawsuit also references an internal executive order from 1990 that says city of Tampa property that’s being disposed of must be advertised to the public.

Should the court find the Ulele contract invalid, the lawsuit says Riverside will submit a competing proposal to the city for the space. Neither a spokeswoman for Riverside Heights Development nor the company’s attorney could be reached on Thursday.

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Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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