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Fighting for the past

Del Acosta is a tough defender of preservation in Tampa's historic districts, reviewing all applications for appearance changes.

Published October 3, 2003

HISTORIC HYDE PARK - Del Acosta can tell you how your house must look, if you live in either of a few particular neighborhoods.

He and the commissioners he manages dictate exterior structural details to property owners who cannot vote them out of power.

Bringing citizens accustomed to a culture of property rights before a panel convened to impose restrictions may seem like a combative job.

Actually, after work is when Acosta, Tampa's chief preservationist, puts his dukes up.

"Four!" barks Pete Fernandez, Acosta's boxing coach during a recent workout in the boxing ring at Xtreme Total Health and Fitness. Acosta immediately responds with a four-punch, right-left-right-left combination. The two men stay crouched as they orbit each other. "Three!" says Fernandez. Acosta lands a left-right-left combo into Fernandez's punch mitts.

In another life, Acosta might look the part of a grizzled boxing coach himself, with his compact build, clean shaven head, and the odd vein bulging out. But he's not given to barking. And his demeanor is much more white collar manager than boxing gym bulldog. "Quite honestly, it was intimidating to me," Acosta said of the idea of boxing. "I put it off for several months."

But now that he's hooked, he doesn't talk about walking fearlessly down dark alleys. Rather, he touts boxing as "A challenging process of growth."

What about burying his mitts into the punching bag after a bad day at the office? Acosta won't bite. "I really like the camaraderie of the (boxing) class," he offers. "As a manager, you're always trying to team build."

Acosta's team consists of the staff of the city's historic preservation office, and two nine-person boards, the Barrio Latino Commission and the Architectural Review Commission.

The commissions regulate the exterior appearance of historic structures and properties within the city's designated historic districts. Currently those districts occupy large portions of Ybor City, Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights, Hyde Park and a few downtown blocks.

The Barrio oversees Ybor City, and the other districts fall under the ARC. Each consists of volunteers selected by the mayor and City Council.

When owners of historic property want to make permanent exterior structural changes, it's up to Acosta and his staff to make sure those changes don't clash with the neighborhood's old time look. Major projects, such as house additions, restorations or new construction, go before the Barrio or the ARC. After a review process, the boards authorize or deny the projects by vote.

As manager, Acosta can't cast a vote. But he and his staff are responsible for supplying the commissions with a summary of the city's preservation guidelines, which are based on the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, and numerous other books on architecture, preservation and construction.

Acosta also provides the commissions with a recommendation on how to regard each case before them. As such he is widely regarded by property owners from Seminole Heights to Old Hyde Park as the man who can get a project a green light.

While Acosta estimates that the commissions vote according to his recommendations 95 percent of the time, he likes to downplay the extent of his influence. "We are consistent because we make reference to published sources," he said.

Consistent can be a highly relative, and coveted, term in the city's architectural review process.

"Any time you go before a board," Acosta said, "and you've got nine different intelligent individuals, you're going to get different opinions. That's what our form of democracy is based on."

The Tampa native graduated from the old Jefferson High School and earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and a masters degree in urban and regional planning from Florida State University. He returned to Tampa in 1969 and worked 11 years for Hillsborough County's planning commission.

After that he was a self-employed urban planner and designer. He often found himself representing clients before the ARC. In 1997 he was hired by the city to manage its new historic preservation office.

Since then, Acosta has become the face of Tampa's historic preservation effort. He can be seen chairing the commission meetings live at 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays on the city's government access channel. And he's appeared in segments on programs about Bayshore Boulevard, Hyde Park and Seminole Heights on HGTV.

"I hope within the next 25 years Tampa becomes a destination among southern historic cities," Acosta said from his office in City Hall. "We're getting there."

- Michael Canning is a Tampa freelance writer who learned first-hand of the city's architectural review process when he and his wife applied successfully last summer to expand their Seminole Heights bungalow.

Del Acosta

AGE: 58

PROFESSION: City of Tampa Historic Preservation manager

CAR: 2003 Honda Civic

HOBBIES: Reading about architecture and historic preservation, boxing and working out at Xtreme gym

REGIMEN: Boxing three days a week, weight lifting and Spinning class another three

MEMBER: Krewe of the Knights of Sant'Yago, Museum of Modern Architecture

FAVORITE RESTAURANTS: Pane Rustica, Cafe B.T., Spartaco, Columbia, the lounge at Bern's

PET PEEVES: When books from his personal library aren't returned

MOTTO: "I'm still learning." - Michelangelo

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