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New Ybor building's critics forget barrio's past

By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


From his office above the Orpheum in Ybor City, architect Ken Kroger, the most misunderstood man in Tampa, can see a yawning gap in the continuity of buildings along Seventh Avenue where the Blue Ribbon Supermarket used to be. That unremarkable building burned down and what's there, along Ybor's premier street just a block from Centro Ybor, is a great big nothing. So you'd think that when Kroger came along with a design for a building to cover the entire 240-foot strip there'd be cause for jubilation, not ridicule.

From his office above the Orpheum in Ybor City, architect Ken Kroger, the most misunderstood man in Tampa, can see a yawning gap in the continuity of buildings along Seventh Avenue where the Blue Ribbon Supermarket used to be. That unremarkable building burned down and what's there, along Ybor's premier street just a block from Centro Ybor, is a great big nothing. So you'd think that when Kroger came along with a design for a building to cover the entire 240-foot strip there'd be cause for jubilation, not ridicule.

To some, Kroger's building, which will house a basement nightclub, restaurants, shops and offices, looked a little too much like an ocean liner. When the design was first shown to the Barrio Latino, the board that approves all building design in the Ybor City historic district, it asked for changes. So the smokestack protuberance on the roof was nixed as well as the porthole windows and a number of other design elements. In December, Kroger got the go-head from the Barrio.

End of story, in most cases. But in this one, some people still just hated this building. Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta. Newspaper editorial writers. The mayor. The City Council.

The city got so riled up, it filed an appeal -- going head to head with the Barrio whose members they appoint -- based on the fact that the city owns property (a parking lot) near the site. The city's specific objection concerned the steel beams that extend outside the building, sort of like awning supports.

Lose the beams, Kroger and his attorney John Grandoff decided. Hence, no appeal. So that challenge was over last week.

Some people still hate the building. It's unclear why.

Ken Kroger is not some interloper; he's worked in Ybor City for a dozen years. The Barrio Latino is not a bunch of cigar-smoking guys in some back room giving blanket approval to developers but a board of professionals who painstakingly consider every aspect of a project from its contribution to street harmony to individual lighting fixtures.

The Barrio, for instance, didn't like the colors Kroger had chosen for the building, which, to fit the scale of the other buildings on Seventh Avenue, is designed to look like three separate buildings with three colors to accentuate the differentiation. The colors are now salmon, red and yellow -- all brick.

Kroger has photographs of 24 variations of brick colors in Ybor.

"It's not all red brick," he points out.

He also has photographs of the street from every possible angle with the new building factored in, showing how it fits seamlessly into the urban landscape. For reference he has photographs of the street as it was a hundred years ago.

In fact, those steel beams the city hated so much have a historical context; they were meant to echo the steel supports on the water towers of Ybor's cigar factories.

People didn't get it, but people don't have to get it.

The sort of book-burning response to the architecture -- which in its current design is not at all radical and in its original design was hardly a Bilbao -- is somewhat disturbing.

More disturbing is that the mayor -- whose portrait hangs in the architecturally-out-of-place Hilton Garden Inn -- felt it was his duty to ride in on a white horse, council galloping behind, to save Ybor from the Barrio Latino, the very people into whose trust the future of the historic district has been placed.

But all's well that ends well.

I asked Ken Kroger if, after the lengthy review process and all the changes, he still feels he's got a building left.

"It's reduced some of what we were trying to accomplish, but we had to make some compromises for the good of the community," he said. "Most people feel this should be built."

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at tampa@sptimes.com. City Life appears on Saturday.

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