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Bob Buckhorn envisions historic Tampa federal courthouse as hotel

TAMPA — Another mayor, another big vision for Tampa's historic federal courthouse.

Within a month, Mayor Bob Buckhorn plans to seek proposals from developers on ways to renovate and reuse the 106-year-old courthouse, which has been closed for 13 years.

"It is uniquely positioned to be an iconic structure if you do it right, so I am pulling out all the stops to get this thing done," he said.

Buckhorn has talked to four or five developers and consulted with urban planning experts through the Mayors' Institute on City Design. The possibility he thinks is strongest is a "boutique hotel" with 100 to 120 rooms.

The city owns the courthouse, which is on Florida Avenue at Zack Street, and could lease it for a pittance to a developer willing to do the renovations.

"You could do a buck a year for 99 years," he said. "I will be very creative if I'm given an opportunity."

In 2008, a study by the Tampa chapter of the American Institute of Architects estimated renovation costs at $18 million. Necessary repairs include asbestos remediation and water damage caused by a broken pipe. In addition, scarce on-site parking is an issue that has come up before and likely would again.

Because the courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, there are limits as to how much it could be modified, Buckhorn said.

Designed by James Knox Taylor, the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, the building was completed in 1905.

The four-story building features neoclassical elements, including Corinthian columns at its front portico. Inside, there are ceilings up to 20 feet high, brass fixtures, ornate chandeliers and green-on-white marble wainscoting. It originally was downtown Tampa's post office but over the years was expanded and became the U.S. courthouse.

The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and closed after the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse opened two blocks north in 1998.

The federal government deeded the building to Tampa for $1 in 2003. The city maintains the building, keeping it air-conditioned to hold down mold.

Next to the University of Tampa's Plant Hall and the Tampa Theatre, the courthouse ranks among the city's most distinctive historic structures, former City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said.

"I asked Bob about this when he was first elected," she said. "I had made a list of things that I thought that he could address immediately, properties that the city owns that were underutilized."

Saul-Sena would love to see the courthouse renovated in a way that makes it accessible to the public. She was delighted that Buckhorn was already thinking about it when she brought it up.

The courthouse reminds Christine Burdick of the Hotel Monaco, a luxury boutique hotel that opened in 2002 inside what had been Washington, D.C.'s, original General Post Office and Tariff Building. An extensive renovation of the old government building gave it palatial hallways, rooms with 20-foot ceilings, a bold color palette and quirky touches like a bust of Thomas Jefferson in every guest room.

"Every time I walk into our courthouse, I can imagine it as a boutique hotel," said Burdick, the president of the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership. "It's an elegant building, it has a tremendous amount of history, and it deserves to be honored and brought to a life that contributes to downtown."

Since it closed, the courthouse has been proposed as a possible home for two charter schools, a photography museum and offices for nonprofit organizations.

At one point, city officials issued a request for redevelopment proposals, and the winning idea came from a group led by managed health care executive Pradip C. Patel, who planned to donate $6.3 million to the renovation.

That plan was scrapped after then-Mayor Pam Iorio proposed using the courthouse as a new home for the Tampa Museum of Art in 2005. But Iorio's idea fizzled in the face of public opposition. By the time it died, Patel had lost interest.

These days, redeveloping the courthouse is not the only project in that part of downtown on Buckhorn's agenda.

Last year, the city hired a landscape architecture firm to develop a plan that would turn Zack Street into a pedestrian-friendly showcase for public art. The idea is to enhance Zack Street's role as a gateway to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Tampa Museum of Art and Glazer Children's Museum.

Having the historic courthouse put to a new use could provide an anchor for that project, too, so Buckhorn is keen to hear developers' ideas for the place.

"I'm pushing hard," he said. "Anybody who will listen to me (I tell), 'Go look at it. Go look at it. Go look at it. Tell me what you think.' "

Bob Buckhorn envisions historic Tampa federal courthouse as hotel 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 11:41pm]
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