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The Oldsmar City Council has decided to reopen the search for a developer for a 10-acre parcel of vacant land located next to City Hall, the latest twist in an ongoing saga that’s lasted nearly two decades.

 

OLDSMAR — The proposed development of downtown Oldsmar has seen many twists and turns during the decade-plus in which officials have discussed building a mixed-use complex on 10 acres of land next to City Hall. 

But the latest turn of events is something no one saw coming just a few months ago.

Following the April passage of a controversial density bonus incentive for a section of the downtown district — a critical issue in the March election that allows more apartment units to be built in the area — Oldsmar City Council has decided unanimously to halt negotiations with the current developer of record, North Carolina-based Woodfield Development, and start a new request for development proposal search.

The intent: getting public input on the project and having a third party facilitate the discussion.

“As I mentioned in our last meeting, I wanted to discuss potentially pausing negotiations with Woodfield and then allowing the city to send out request for development proposals,” council member Steve Graber said during a May 3 council meeting.

He said his request “was no reflection on Woodfield (and) more to take a step back and see if there’s more interest now.”

Graber said he believes it is “wise to discuss” finding a way to hold a public workshop before drafting a development agreement and to “have a third party facilitate the discussion — they host the workshop, and what I want to see is, essentially, a vision statement come out of that.”

He said the purpose of the workshop would be “to allow stakeholders to provide the conceptual plan to go into the vision statement.”

Issues to be addressed include “do we desire to maximize retail, do we desire to have an interactive park, do we desire to have public art, and on and on down the line,” he added.

Graber, who was elected to Seat 1 in March 2021, said pausing the discussions with Woodfield and hosting a public forum will “allow the public to have input before and input after,” similar to what the city recently did with the proposed development next to the Oldsmar Public Library.

Indeed, the lack of public input on the current iteration of the downtown project was a rallying cry in the last election and likely played a factor in incumbent mayor Eric Seidel’s loss to Dan Saracki. 

Said Vice Mayor Jarrod Buchman: “This is what we’ve been asking for for months. This is what we’ve been asking the previous council. Why can’t we bring in public input first?”

Council members Katie Gannon and Andrew Knapp agreed, marking one of the first major unanimous decisions since the divisive election concluded and the new council was seated last month.

The importance of the moment was not lost on the mayor.

“I think that as a council, today, right now, we are moving forward in the right direction, and I am very honored and humbled to be a part of this downtown development plan and to see what’s going to happen in the future,” Saracki said. “Woodfield has been nothing but professional, and they’re welcome to come back with a different proposal, if they like. But I want to hear your ideas and your proposals.”

The council’s decision to move in another direction with the downtown development could be seen as the first step toward uniting a community that was divided after the tumultuous, yearlong campaign season, as the surprising move was also met with approval and applause from the former mayor.

“Personally, I think it’s a smart idea and shows good leadership to ensure we as taxpayers get the best deal,” Seidel wrote in a recent Facebook post. “Now that the city has a density incentive to use as a tool, the development community will know what’s possible and are likely to participate, where in the past they would not.”

Seidel added he liked the key components of the Woodfield proposal, “especially the developer paying for the public parking needs and city infrastructure. But he also noted “a lot has changed since this process started, and my bet is they will be workable to keep the deal going and the city will get the best deal possible.”