Heartbreak (maybe) hostel

An oasis for young travelers with backpacks faces an uncertain future over clashes with the city and a neighbor.

Published June 2, 2006

TAMPA HEIGHTS - Backpackers journey to Tampa's best-known hostel from countries so obscure, Gram's Place owner Mark Holland can't even name them.

The young budget travelers trade adventure stories from bunks in Gram's Place's two old cottages. They smoke cigarettes on the rooftop crow's nest and listen to music at the hostel named after Gram Parsons, the godfather of country rock.

Soon, that could end.

Last week, the city's code enforcement board found Holland in violation of several codes. Violations involve a "stairway to heaven" linking the treehouse-style decks from the back yard to the roof and a shed Holland added to house guests in an "Adventure Room."

The board told him if he didn't fix the 12 violations by August, he would be fined $100 per day. It also told him he would have to change the zoning for the property at 3109 N Ola Ave. The site is zoned single-family residential.

At the May 24 hearing, Holland presented a recent letter from Fernando Noriega Jr., one of former Mayor Dick Greco's top advisers, saying city officials had waived rules for the hostel several years ago.

The board said the mayor's administration had no power to make zoning changes and the letter had no legal weight.

Holland offered a petition with 10 signatures and four letters from neighbors and backpackers supporting the hostel.

The board didn't look at them, and told him to take the documents to the City Council if he requests the zoning change.

Holland spoke of the hostel's unique soul but to no avail.

"It's an eyesore, in my opinion," board member Frank Kane said. "It's offensive, and you need to correct it."

Holland doesn't know what he's going to do. He knows he can't fix the violations without tearing down the entire hostel and rebuilding.

"Nobody in charge wants anything like this," Holland said two days before the hearing, standing behind the hostel's bring-your-own-booze bar. "They want vacant lot after abandoned building after vacant lot."

Holland bought the property in 1977 and made it a rooming house, which evolved into a bed and breakfast.

In 1989, Holland traveled to Amsterdam. The city's laid-back nature inspired him to create a slice of Amsterdam in Tampa, his hometown. He decided to dedicate it to Gram Parsons, his musical hero.

In 1991, he started advertising the place in the hostel-hopping grapevine, which now includes hosteling forums such as Travelpunk.com, Hostelworld.com and Worldsurface.com, where travelers swap lodging recommendations. Rates start at $22.50.

The backpackers stay in the hostel's nine music-themed rooms. Many don't want to leave. After Marlene Dusz visited Gram's Place from Merritt Island in 2000, she bought the house next door.

"If Gram's Place goes, so do I," she wrote in a letter supporting Holland.

Holland said he obtained signatures from all the homeowners surrounding his property.

Except for one.

Marian Amparo filed a lawsuit Nov. 29 demanding a jury trial in Hillsborough Circuit Court against Holland, citing trespass, encroachment, nuisance and negligence.

Amparo's suit states that a fence and an addition Holland made in 2001 extend into her property, and his awnings flood water into her yard.

Along with an injunction to remove the fence and addition, the suit demands $160,000 in general damages, $80,000 in punitive damages, $1,000 for emotional distress and $20,000 for attorney fees.

Amparo said she hoped to solve the problem peacefully. Event though she filed the suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court, Amparo hasn't served Holland with it yet. He said he didn't know about the suit.

He also doesn't know what's next.

"I'm 55 years old,'' he said. "This is the only thing I know to do. This is the only thing I can do.''

Rebuilding the hostel is not an option, Holland said. Neither is opening at a different location. After the hearing, a neighbor consoled him, speaking of fundraisers, zone changes and lawyers.

Holland was less optimistic.

"Goodbye, Gram's Place," he said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.