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Sunday, Oct 14, 2018
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Tampa artist alleges Clearwater Mercado project is remarkably similar to hers

After designer Mishou Sanchez was unable to raise the $50,000 needed to jump-start her Mercado proposal, an affordable retail plaza built from shipping containers on a 3-acre parcel in Tampa, she reluctantly moved on.

Mercado Tampa was a concept she had been developing for years, and in 2014 she launched a website with renderings, met with state officials, was interviewed by local media and tried a Kickstarter campaign to fund the engineering work.

So it felt like a kick in the gut, she said, when an architect friend sent her a local news story in September detailing Clearwater's new plan for a small parcel near downtown. It was called the Mercado. Made with shipping containers. Also geared toward diversity and affordability. The renderings even used the same font.

"I got sick," said Sanchez, 41. "Then I was conflicted because it's a project that's going to help people. But damn."

Sanchez is now asking the city of Clearwater and its consulting firm that designed the plan for attribution, inclusion in the construction and development of the Mercado, and a $5,000 fee "for the protectable elements which were copied," according to a letter from her attorney Elizabeth Devolder.

Devolder said, of course, Sanchez didn't invent shipping containers. And she doesn't own the rights to the Spanish word mercado.

But it's the "expression of ideas" and the elements combined that makes this copyright infringement, Devolder claims. Both projects use similarly shaped pieces of land as the centerpieces, both have similar locations within minority communities, both pitched low-cost commercial space for artisan businesses, and both use the same building materials all wrapped up under the same name in the same font.

"We own what we create, we own the fruits of our labor," Devolder said Tuesday. "She worked really hard on that project. Her goal is not to impede the project in Clearwater, but simply for recognition of what she contributed to the concept. Is it right that a development firm from New York should be paid $50,000, for a concept which is remarkably similar to one she advertised two to three years earlier? Is that right?"

Steve Davies, executive vice president of Project for Public Spaces, which Clearwater hired for the project, said their concept was developed through multiple community workshops, outreach and surveys of potential market vendors.

He said they delivered what the community wanted: "a colorful community plaza that could host outdoor markets and other events, repurposed from a small triangular plot of land owned by the city and the possible reuse of an existing structure." Davies said PPS did not include shipping containers in its sketches; those were added by the city after the fact.

"Our labeling a sketch as a mercado was requested by the city and meant to give it a generic name for now, reflecting the Latino neighborhood," Davies said. "The concept for the space espouses principles we have long espoused for successful public spaces."

Clearwater communications director Joelle Castelli said it is too early in the process to answer complaints from Sanchez because the final design will likely be adjusted.

Castelli said the Mercado plan stalled after the city's Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor, who led the project, resigned in October.

She said Taylor added the shipping containers after collaborating with a separate streetscape consultant, which Taylor confirmed Wednesday.

The Mercado plan Clearwater approved in September aims to convert a vacant car rental office in a triangular island in the middle of an intersection east of downtown into a cultural hub within the surrounding Hispanic community. It includes a festival plaza, beer garden, stage for music, food trucks and a shipping container aspect to house businesses like a juice bar or taco stand.

It pairs with the city's $8 million landscaping and road-narrowing overhaul of the 1-mile stretch of Cleveland Street east of Missouri Avenue, expected to begin early next year.

Sanchez said she wants to see the Clearwater project succeed because her career has focused on using art and design to help communities. She just wants some credit.

She developed a permaculture living system for the American Sudanese Partnerships to be constructed as humanitarian relief in Darfur, Sudan. She also created a shipping container proposal for Habitat for Humanity and is a two-time Guggenheim Grant finalist for a shipping container gallery system.

Florida Department of Transportation spokesman David Botello confirmed the agency discussed Mercado Tampa with Sanchez in 2014 and approved her to lease the 3-acre state-owned parcel at the I-4 to I-275 interchange near Columbus Drive.

Sanchez said she pitched the design to give Tampa much-needed affordable commercial space and diversify ownership. The plan could not move forward without funding for a traffic analysis, attorney, civil engineering firm and the rezoning. She hopes it can have new life in Clearwater — with the proper credit.

"It's more for the acknowledgement," she said. "It was something I had been developing for over a decade. Again, I'm glad it's going to help people, but to not get any credit at all is offensive."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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