Ariel Quintela never lived among the cobbled streets of Ybor City, but he is working to keep history alive in this one-time cigar capital with its deep ties to his native Cuba.
Quintela was born near Varadero, in Cárdenas, and moved with his family to the United States at age 4 — Miami, then Michigan, then Tampa.
Now a builder and developer, Quintela has been purchasing and renovating land and buildings in Ybor City for commercial spaces and rental apartments in partnership with Darryl Shaw, president of BluePearl Veterinary.
Building, Quintela said, is in his blood.
Before the Castro revolution, his father sold German-made construction materials in Cárdenas that he hauled from Havana.
"My dad brought the materials in large trucks. ... He had hardware and a warehouse. He worked a lot."
He attended Leto High School and Hillsborough Community College and saw the Ybor City of his youth — still a blend of Cubans, Italians and Spaniards whose ancestors had settled the district — deteriorate to become a target for urban renewal.
"It was a city that was pretty run down. The children of the Cubans and the Italians had already moved and those who remained in Ybor were the old people," Quintela said. "There were very few places to live or rent."
He is convinced that what Ybor needs today is housing to "start the renaissance of the city again."
Beyond creating living spaces, Quintela hopes to rescue the rich history of José Martí, regarded as the George Washington of Cuba, who spent time in Ybor City in the 1890s on the writing and fund-raising that fueled Cuba's war of independence from Spain.
"We are going to renovate the buildings and give them the names of the Cuban patriots — of course José Martí, Juan Gualberto Gómez and the Pedroso family who helped Martí," Quintela said.
All the projects get off the ground this year.
A tour through one of them hints at the changes in store for Ybor.
The former Don Vicente de Ybor Inn opens as an office complex April 17. A renowned bed and breakfast until two years ago, the building originally was the González Clinic, where local families came for health care and where many Ybor City natives were born.
"In this building downstairs were the offices of Vicente Martínez Ybor, who Ybor City was named after, and in the second floor was Ybor`s partner's apartment, where he had a photography studio."
Retaining the original appearance has been a challenge but the exterior at least harkens to the Ybor City of old.
"This building has changed so much …we kept the stairs and I would have liked to remove the stucco so that the brick survived, but there was so much concrete that has been fixed, over the years that we cannot do that."
Russell Lees, a contractor working on the building, described the colors and materials in use.
"Everything is custom designed and made, new air conditioning installed." Lees said. "The original bar on the first floor has been restored to its natural beauty. The ceilings and panels were handmade locally."
One floor of the two-story building already is rented out. Still available for rent is the basement, once the clinic's morgue.
"The basement was the mortuary of the clinic. I would love it to be a jazz bar," Quintela said. "Ybor City does not have such a unique underground place."
The partners' biggest project will be Casa Martí, new construction in the red-brick style of Ybor City at Nuccio Parkway and Seventh Avenue. Plans call for work amounting to $19.6 million.
All told, they have spent $5.7 million buying property and their total investment may amount to $34 million, they told the Tampa Bay Times.
One Ybor City project Quintela is pursuing with another partnership suffered a setback earlier this month: Arsonists set fire on successive Saturdays to a 1904 building he had hoped to restore as retail and apartments. An investigation is underway. Quintela said the building must be replaced.
Diana Arufe, who works with Quintela in the marketing of the projects, said the Cuban developer will introduce mobile phone apps featuring the history of the Cuban heroes for whom the buildings will be named.
"He is like Ybor's Midas, undertaking the great work of rebuilding and preserving the city of Ybor to rescue history, closely linked to the Cuban patriot Jose Marti," Arufe said.
"It is a restoration that will attract the attention of the world."
Contact Myriam Silva-Warren at [email protected] CENTRO Tampa is a sister publication of the Tampa Bay Times.