Downtown Tampa's history still lives, in bits and pieces, along the northern parallel stretches of Franklin Street and Florida Avenue. The restored Tampa Theatre marquee lights up the blocks each evening, as do the red neon letters atop the old Hotel Floridan, where a multimillion-dollar restoration slowly continues.
Unfortunately, pockets of potential blight have either gotten stuck in the recent recession or mired in city regulations. Black wooden boards cover the ground-floor windows of the former Kress, Woolworth and Newberry department stores, which could face the same fate as the nearby Maas Bros. building if something doesn't happen soon.
Revitalization of historic buildings is a daunting task, not because of the condition of the nearly century-old structures but the effort and expense required. Ultimately, building owners must justify their own long-term investments in order to save the structure.
“It has to make economic sense,” says Brenda Dohring Hicks, a Tampa appraiser and broker who owns a number of vintage buildings downtown including 514 Franklin, now a popular spot for lunch or coffee. “A good owner will do what is right economically because that's important to the building.”
The 800 block of North Franklin Street, widely known as the Kress Block, is a prime example. The Doran Jason Group, a Miami-based developer with one of its principals in Tampa, bought the entire block, plus part of an adjacent block to the north, for nearly $5 million in 2005 with plans to build twin condominium towers totaling one million square feet.
Preservationists became nervous about the prospect of high-rise condos replacing the much-shorter retail buildings that were an integral part of downtown Tampa throughout much of the 20th century. For instance, Woolworth's lunch counter was the scene of a 1960 sit-in demonstration by segregation protesters.
African-American leaders demanded that the Woolworth facade be preserved as a monument to Tampa's civil rights history, even though the actual lunch counter is long gone with the rest of the gutted interior.
Not much is remarkable about the building anymore, except for a red ribbon where the name “F.W. Woolworth” had been bolted on in big metal letters.
The classic Kress name remains visible on the neighboring buildings, chiseled into the art deco arch at the top or painted on brick walls. The Tampa City Council attempted to preserve the exteriors in 2006 through an agreement with developers, and Doran Jason and American Apartment Advisors Inc. designed its planned towers containing 975 condo living units to be built within the old stores' walls.
Last year, the $201-million project was shelved indefinitely, with Tampa developer Jeannette Jason calling the prior agreement with the city impractical. She submitted a letter to the current city council in August stating that action by previous councils obstructed her firm's ability to move forward with its project.
“The city, it seems, applies cumbersome, unnecessary and restrictive regulations to properties that are most complicated to develop; while paving the way for developers of properties where no historic preservation is involved,” wrote Jason, who declined to return telephone messages requesting an interview over the past week.
A compromise has been proposed in the form of a permanent display at the Tampa Bay History Center commemorating the Woolworth protests, thereby eliminating the need to preserve the store's facade. But if preservationists want to save the building, they had better not wait much longer.
A similar effort was made to save the 1920s-era Maas Bros. department store across Franklin Street from the Kress Block, with various owners eyeing their own redevelopment plans to replace it with high-rise condos. The building had deteriorated to the point that even firefighters were prohibited from saving it in such an event, so it was demolished in 2006. Now it's a parking lot.
Fire did consume the old Albany Hotel in the 1100 block of North Franklin Street, in 2007. Owners of the property had planned to restore or redevelop the 1926 hotel.
While the Kress and related buildings continue falling into disrepair, there is hope for historic preservation right across Florida Avenue.
Work continues on the interior of the 19-story Hotel Floridan, which was Tampa's tallest building for 40 years following its 1926 opening and accommodated celebrities such as Gary Cooper and Elvis Presley before closing in 1987.
Tony Markopoulos, a Clearwater developer known more for beachside resorts, bought the Floridan for $6 million in 2005, followed by an adjacent post office in the same block for $2 million the following year. His original plan was to reopen the once-grand hotel in time for Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, but the project has taken a while longer with costs reaching tens of millions of dollars.
Lisa Shasteen, a Tampa real estate attorney representing Markopoulos, says he has not committed to a firm date for the Floridan's reopening. However, the hotel's restored rooftop letters and other exterior lighting have been on for several months, making it visible from Interstate 275.
Hicks believes the Floridan and other nearby developments should help spark more efforts to restore older buildings on the north side to new uses. “It's the best form of recycling,” she says.
Meanwhile, other ornate buildings along downtown Tampa's northern edge remain stuck in time. The former U.S. Courthouse at 601 N. Florida Ave., now belonging to the City of Tampa, has been proposed for various uses, including an art museum and federal offices.
Nothing has materialized since it closed in 1998 for a newer, nearby courthouse, though the building's well-preserved marble steps and columns now serve as a backdrop for wedding photos and lawyers' TV commercials.