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Neglected area primps with 'historic' status

Five Franklin Street buildings from the early 1900s now offer tax breaks for renovations because of their landmark status. Officials hope it sparks a rebirth.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


DOWNTOWN -- You could call them the Forgotten Five.

Five old buildings, a blur from a speeding car, with direct links to the once bustling Franklin Street business district.

Architect Stephanie Ferrell took an interest in them a decade ago while working as director of the Historic Tampa/Hillsborough County Preservation Board. She admired the architecture and hated to see the structures sit vacant and rot.

Last week, at her urging, the city took steps to preserve the buildings by declaring them local landmarks. Officials hope the designation sparks development in downtown's neglected northern edge.

"It restores confidence in the area," said Wilson Stair, Tampa's urban design manager. "Before it was just a forgotten no man's land."

Landmark status offers tax breaks to owners who renovate their masonry vernacular buildings just south of Interstate 275. They can get a one-time credit on their federal tax bill, and they don't have to pay local property taxes on the improvements for 10 years.

Last year, the buildings became part of the National North Franklin Street Historic District.

"It kind of puts a bug in the eyes and ears of the developers," said Hamilton Jones, who owns one of the buildings. "It gets them interested in the area."

The one- to three-story buildings on Franklin, Tampa Street and Florida Avenue date to the early 1900s when the area was a thriving commercial district. Neighbors flocked to hardware stores, barber shops, markets and hotels. The old streetcar ferried people to Tampa Heights.

Two of the buildings housed furniture stores. One sold automobile parts and another was a hotel. The ground floors generally had retail uses and the upper floors had offices, hotel rooms and apartments.

The area lost its prominence in the 1950s as people left the city for new greener suburbs. Shoddy homes and commercial buildings fell victim to the wrecking ball and were never rebuilt.

Over time, as efforts to redevelop Franklin Street focused on the wealthier south end, the north end gradually declined. Pawn shops and bars replaced professional offices and specialty stores.

In the 1970s, the city tried to jump-start north Franklin by creating a decorative walkway and closing it off to cars to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

It turned out the improvements were premature. Downtown's business core still had room to grow and land was relatively cheap.

Today, the situation has changed. High-rises fill the skyline; office space goes for top dollar. Energies shifted back to north Franklin.

In 1997, Jones and a partner bought 1102 N Florida Ave., the former General Automobile Supply building. They wanted to invest in a historic building and figured they could find tenants who wanted to work near the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse.

Jones, who recently restored the Palace of Florence on Davis Islands, renovated the 1926 building and leased it to All-Trade Staffing. The city's archives and records department now rents the space, and the Police Department's internal affairs division plans to move in soon.

Tenants enjoy the plentiful parking and smaller old buildings.

Tom Martino bought the old C.C. Burns Furniture Store at 1207 N Franklin St. three years ago as a branch office of Martino Mortgage in Ybor City. The building needed work but had potential.

"You couldn't find a more ideal location," he said. "It's close to the interstate and Ybor."

Franklin was pretty scary when he moved in, Martino said. Vandals and drunks plagued the street. Thieves stole cars.

That stopped after police beefed up patrols and the city repaired the street lights. Yet problems persist. Martino wants the city to enforce the hours of Herman Massey Park to dissuade vagrants from congregating there at night.

Achieving landmark status puts the area back in the limelight, officials say. It complements other projects in the area, such as the cultural arts district and Stetson University's law center under construction near I-275 and the Hillsborough River. Just last month, HARTline opened its new $4.5-million Marion Transit Center.

"Each one of these projects is a stepping stone," Stair said. "It's an exciting time. We've come a long way in the last 15 years but I think the pace is going to pick up, even with the economy the way it is."

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena foresees a mix of low-rise buildings with stores and cafes on the first floor and offices and residences above. Eventually, the new streetcar could continue to Ybor and the cultural arts district.

"The potential for rebirth in that part of downtown is really terrific," she said. "It's been down on its luck for a long time."

Ferrell initiated the landmark status two years ago after contacting other building owners in the area. At the time, she and partner Bob Harrell, the city's director of Business and Community Services Department, owned the building at 1110 N Florida Ave.

Ferrell and Harrell sold the building in 2001 to the Cohn family, who turned it into the law practice of Cohn, Cohn & Hendrix. Ferrell did the design work and rents out space for her historic preservation business.

Ferrell and Harrell bought the old Arlington Hotel at 1209 N Franklin St. that same year and have it on the market for $1.65-million. Built around 1913, the hotel has 52 rooms with high ceilings and two tall windows in each. Badcock Furniture leases most of the first floor.

The hotel sits one block east of another newly named landmark, the Gaetano-Ferlita building at 1211 N Tampa St. The three-story brick building dates to early 1900s and it gets it name from a name found in the terrazzo tile at the entry.

Michael Lane and Diane Hill of Tampa Heights Builders Inc. bought it last year and plan to renovate.

To make the most out of the improvements, property owners and city officials want the state to tear down its eight-story office building at the end of Franklin Street. They say it blocks traffic from flowing into Tampa Heights and doesn't fit historically.

Mayor Dick Greco has contacted the governor, who is considering it.

Parties agree any plans will take time. Even if all the buildings are renovated, the area still has a lot of vacant land and parking lots to develop. The pioneers say it's worth the wait.

"I realize this isn't going to happen today but I see Starbucks and Panera Bread," Ferrell said. "It's a start."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com

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