tampabay.com

Blight made right

Old buildings gain new interest downtown, with developers planning to spare at least some historic elements.

By JANET ZINK
Published March 18, 2005


DOWNTOWN - The residential buzz around downtown Tampa has reached six historic buildings that have been vacant for more than a decade.

Developers have proposed condominium, retail and hotel projects for the former Maas Brothers store, the Floridan Hotel, and the Kress building, adjacent Newberry and two Woolworth properties. All were built along N Franklin Street between 1905 and 1942.

On the Kress block, Coral Gables developer Doran Jason wants to build a 400-unit residential and retail center.

In place of the Maas Brothers building, managed health care executive Pradip C. Patel, who bought it in January, plans to put a condo tower with up to 500 units.

And on the Floridan site, a local developer has proposed preserving it as a hotel with some living units.

All three concepts are preliminary - but encouraging to city leaders trying to revitalize the city's urban core.

"What's exciting is all the interest in downtown," said Annie Hart, the city's historic preservation manager.

Tampa architect Stephanie Farrell, who has worked on historic preservation issues for more than 20 years, said a healthy economy, rising housing prices, and the mayor's commitment to create a vibrant downtown have sparked developers' interests.

"The development world is recognizing that historic buildings are economically feasible as well as attractive to buyers," she said.

Plans call for saving the entire Kress building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and facades of the Woolworth and Newberry department store buildings. Behind the facades, developers would build condo towers.

The Maas Brothers building may be too deteriorated to salvage, but the Floridan has potential to be restored as a hotel, Hart said.

"That would be a wonderful addition to downtown. A lot of the historic fabric is there," she said. "That is a gem of downtown Tampa."

The Floridan is a local landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes the owner eligible for tax breaks.

Lisa Shasteen, an attorney for the local developer interested in the Floridan, said her client has had a contract on the building since early this month. She declined to give the developer's name.

"We're just doing due diligence," she said. "Many people have done this before."

If the plans don't come to fruition, someone else is likely to consider the building, she said.

The Floridan wasn't restored before, Hart said, because its owners were waiting to get the maximum price possible. "The time now is right."

Farrell hopes that this time the Floridan will see a revival.

"I have had my eye on that building for a long time," she said. "The use is perfect."

Jason, the Coral Gables developer, hired Farrell to incorporate the old structures on the Kress block into what they've dubbed Kress Square.

He has asked the city's Historic Preservation Commission to give the Kress building landmark status, but declined to do so for the others because he wants to raze one of the two Woolworth buildings to accommodate parking. The commission will consider the issue April 12.

At some point, the commission will weigh in on demolition of the Maas Brothers building, which the City Council last year said needed to be done. The structure has deteriorated so much that the fire marshal and structural engineers don't want to enter it, Hart said. The last time she toured the building, the wood floors on the upper levels were worn so thin she could see through to the lower level.

Hart would like developers to save at least the portion of the Maas facade built in 1915 for the Strand Theatre, a Mediterranean-revival style movie house that in 1939 became part of the department store.

The entire building, though, is another story.

"At some point it can be impractical to rehabilitate," she said.

Farrell agreed.

"It's hard for me to give up on a building," Farrell said. "But at some point it does become impractical and you have to just say new is better."

The Kress and Maas Brothers developers say they want to offer homes that will be affordable by downtown standards. In the nearby Channel District, condominiums start at about $300,000 and go up to several million. Patel said he wants to keep prices between the low $200,000s and $350,000.

"We are looking at a price point that the people working downtown can afford," Patel said.

He hopes to start construction at the end of the year.

Despite the possible loss of the Maas Brothers building, Farrell said she's encouraged to see that the redevelopment of downtown Tampa is including historic preservation.

"It makes such a big difference in the character of the city," she said. "You see its history through its buildings. You see layers of time. In our case, it's the early 1900s through the present. A healthy city has it all - the best of the old and the best of the new."

Janet Zink can be reached at 226-3401 or jzink@sptimes.com