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Tampa works to preserve historic buildings

TAMPA — Every year, it seems, another piece of history crumbles. Two years ago, the Maas Brothers department store was bulldozed to make way for a condominium development that hasn't taken shape. Last year, downtown's vacant Albany Hotel went up in flames. And just last month, the roof of the 95-year-old Gary school caved in, after years of warnings about water damage. Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager, calls these classic cases of "demolition by neglect." And he's working on a plan to stop others from meeting the same fate.

To Fernandez, the symptoms are all too familiar: failed plans, meager maintenance, bad security, broken windows and bad roofs left unattended, allowing water to seep in.

The city tries to step in, but two of its departments work against each other.

The historic preservation department's primary goal is to protect the city's most treasured buildings.

The code enforcement department's primary goal is to protect the public. If a historic building is decaying and poses a danger, one way to correct the problem is to demolish the structure.

That's often the cheapest option for owners, as violation fines are capped, but the price of restoration can climb into the millions. Fernandez is afraid that makes demolition an easy fix.

"An owner may feel that by the passive neglect of the building, he can have his end result."

So the city attorney, along with the code enforcement and historic preservation departments, is drafting an ordinance to make demolition a little harder.

It's still in its early stages, but some options they're considering are court-ordered injunctions and financial incentives to rehabilitate buildings.

They also want to put historic buildings on a fast track through the code-enforcement process.

They expect to present their proposed ordinance to the City Council by the end of the year.

If passed, it will kick in too late to help the Gary school.

It was in bad shape when John Simon bought it last year from the Hillsborough County School Board.

Simon planned to turn it into a school sports facility, but as his zoning plans lingered, code violations piled up.

In May, the city ordered him to repair the roof, the masonry brick facade, exterior stairways, windows, doors and gutters. Officials say he never did.

Then, on July 22, the old building gave in.

Simon will face the code enforcement board Wednesday, when members will decide whether he is guilty of the violations that caused the collapse.

City engineers who inspected the site after its collapse say the building can be stabilized, but Simon has told the city he wants to demolish what's left.

He's familiar with the process — his company, JVS Contracting, demolishes buildings.

He may have to wait until November for a hearing with the Architectural Review Board, which must approve any demolition.

That is, unless the rest of the building collapses.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Critical condition

Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager, identified a few of Tampa's most treasured buildings that could face "demolition by neglect" if they aren't restored. Here they are:

Kress Building 811 Franklin St., Downtown; Built: 1929

Why it's important: It was one of the last major commercial structures built in Tampa before the Great Depression and is reminiscent of the era when downtown was the city's central retail location.

Why it's in danger: A private owner's plans to incorporate the Kress into a condominium development haven't panned out. The building is vacant, with broken windows and cracks that allow water to seep in.

Sicilian Club 2001 N Howard Ave., West Tampa; Built: 1929

Why it's important: Ethnic clubs like this one were instrumental in the development of West Tampa and Ybor City. This club hosted dances and drew crowds to its theater.

Why it's in danger: It's vacant and its windows have been stuccoed over, which doesn't allow moisture to escape. Water intrusion is the downfall of historic buildings.

La Mega/V. Guerra Cigar Factory 201 N 26th St., Palmetto Beach; Built: 1910

Why it's important: At one point, 200 cigar factories across Tampa built the economic and social foundation of this city. Now, only 26 remain.

Why it's in danger: Unlike the other buildings mentioned, this cigar factory doesn't have a historic designation, so it's not offered the same protections as the others. A planned development failed, so now, it's vacant. Fernandez says its owner has been uncooperative with the city.

Tampa works to preserve historic buildings 08/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 4:30am]
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