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Neighborhood Report

From ex-hospital to apartments for elderly

A bank and a nursing home team up to convert the 75-year-old Centro Asturiano Hospital into rentals for seniors.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 10, 2003

For decades, Centro Asturiano Hospital served families of Latin immigrants who rolled cigars in nearby Ybor City. Doctors delivered babies and treated the ill. Surgeons performed delicate procedures.

Over the years, the 144-bed facility struggled to compete with larger, more modern hospitals and fell deeper and deeper into debt. It closed abruptly in 1990.

The city tried to salvage one of Tampa's oldest hospitals but the costs prevented it. The building at 21st Avenue and 14th Street needed too much work.

Demolition seemed the only choice.

Today the 75-year-old building may get a second life as apartments for the elderly. Bank of America and a nursing home next to the old hospital have teamed up to build a 160 to 200 unit rental complex for seniors.

First, developers have to change the land use to allow residential use. The issue goes to the Hillsborough County-City County Planning Commission on Monday and to the City Council on Jan. 23.

The commission meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. on the 18th floor of the County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd. The staff has recommended the board support it.

If the land-use and subsequent rezoning are approved, construction on Centro Asturiano Place could start late this year or early next. The first tenant could move in about a year later.

"We want to bring it back to life and make it a focal point for the community," said David Smith, a land-use consultant working on the project.

Before any building goes up, the 6.8-acre site needs a thorough scrubbing. The hospital has underground fuel tanks and abandoned medical waste, according to an environmental study. At the time it closed, the lab still had cans of infectious materials.

Preliminary plans call for adding three buildings, each three to five stories tall. Developers intend to restore the existing Italian-style front of the hospital and turn it into offices, health screening rooms and recreational areas for residents.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments would cater to a mix of income levels but would not be government subsidized, Smith said. He imagines some of the clients would be longtime area residents.

Neighborhood leaders laud the project provided the buildings blend with the rest of the community. The site, which falls just outside the border of the Ybor City Historic District, is catty-corner from the historic Cuscaden Pool and abuts many old bungalows.

"Right now we've had so many problems with the site that it will be a warm welcome," said Carrol Marshall, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association.

After the hospital closed, the property became a den for vagrants, drug dealers and illegal dumping. Today a chain-link fence surrounds the site, overgrown with weeds and littered with piles of broken concrete.

Marshall, a resident since 1989, has met regularly with developer representatives to stay abreast of the plans and offer opinions. She still worries about the high density and height of the buildings.

"We don't want to discourage these people, but we don't want to change the appearance of the neighborhood," she said.

Redevelopment of the site comes none too soon for officials at the Home Association, a 96-bed nursing home next door. Ever since the hospital went bankrupt, the home has worried about the property's future, said Susan Leisner, president of the facility's board of managers.

Years of abandonment have made it a mess, she said.

The Home Association, built in 1923, tried to attract some kind of low-income housing for seniors, but liens tied up the property for years. Then Bank of America came along.

The association began working with the bank about two years ago. As a nonprofit partner, it will offer transportation and other services to residents in the apartments. They'll have use of the adjacent Sarah Park, which Peter O. Knight donated to the association in honor of his mother.

The complex is being developed by CAP Development Co., a partnership between the Bank of America Community Development Corp. and the Home Association. CAP bought the hospital and adjacent lots at an October tax deed sale for $729,797, according to the county.

The project marks the latest for the bank's community development arm in Tampa. Others are the Mobley Park Apartments near Interstate 275, the soon-to-open Sanctuary apartments in Tampa Heights and a future $55-million riverfront development project north of downtown.

Like those projects, the bank will finance construction of Centro Asturiano Place and get tax credits for every unit occupied by low- or moderate-income tenants. Rental prices haven't been set.

Early estimates put the project at $16-million to $18-million, Leisner said.

The hospital's history dates to 1902 when immigrants from the Asturias region of northern Spain founded the Centro Asturiano social club. Members built the hospital in 1927.

The facility severed ties to the club in 1957, when it opened its doors to the full community. When the hospital closed, many of the patients, who paid $20 a month for medical benefits, had to look elsewhere for medical care.

Fire damaged part of the building in 1993. The city later condemned it and tore down the back wing. A city file about the restoration plan had the header: "Centro Asturiano. Translation: 'It Ain't Possible.' "

That grim outlook apparently did little to deter the developers who saw potential in the cracked bricks and wandering weeds.

"When they looked at the site, they just fell in love with the look of the building," Smith said.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or .

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