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Preservation of Woolworth facade sparks a battle

TAMPA — In 1960, Gwen Miller, then a young schoolteacher, sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter downtown with about a dozen friends to protest segregation.

Soon after, signs that prohibited black people from eating at the counter with white people came down.

"We weren't doing it for ourselves. We were doing it for the whole community," Miller recalled.

Now a Tampa City Council member, Miller is pledging to fight to save the facade of the Woolworth building.

Its owners want out of a deal requiring them to preserve portions of the building's art deco exterior, as well as part of the facade of the old Newberry department store on the same Franklin Street block.

The council is scheduled to vote on the agreement Thursday.

"The agreement that's in place, it's just cumbersome," said Jeannette Jason, part of the development team looking to redevelop the two buildings as well as the old Kress building sandwiched between them.

There are no immediate plans to tear down the Woolworth and Newberry buildings, which at one point were going to be replaced with condo towers, Jason said. The faltering economy put those plans on hold.

"Rather than keeping these buildings boarded up, maybe we can fix them up and get some tenants," she said. "This would be a first step in improving the neighborhood."

Jason said she faces a unique situation that requires her to preserve property she owns even though it's not officially designated as historic.

"I'm not sure why we have a different set of rules," she said.

Indeed, the agreement is unusual.

In 2006, at the request of Jason and her development team, the City Council voted to give the Kress building historic landmark status. That meant any changes would have to be approved by an architectural review board.

But the council, following a recommendation of the city's Historic Preservation Commission and over Jason's objections, also designated the facades of the Newberry and Woolworth buildings as historic landmarks.

The preservation commission made its recommendation based on the buildings' architectural significance, as well as the historic events that occurred there during the civil rights era.

Mayor Pam Iorio was eager to see that part of downtown transformed into a bustling residential neighborhood. She unsuccessfully fought the designation, saying it would hinder plans to put nearly 500 condominiums on the block.

Jason pursued a legal challenge to the designation, using a property rights argument. The case went to a mediator, who negotiated a compromise to protect the building facades through a contract rather than a historic landmark designation.

So the council revoked the historic designation.

Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager, said it's the only time a designation has been revoked in his 10 years with the city.

Still, he called the compromise considerate, because it still allows Jason to tear down the buildings and incorporate the facades into new construction.

But Iorio never liked the agreement.

"I've always thought it was wrong the way this particular property owner was treated," she said. "Every time I go by that building and see it boarded up, it's a gnawing example to me of government treating someone poorly."

Not only is Jason subject to an unusual preservation requirement, but the site plan also requires her to contribute $500,000 to transportation improvements before any buildings can be constructed.

In April, City Attorney Chip Fletcher determined the transportation condition is illegal and unenforceable.

Now Iorio wants the facade protection removed to make the property easier to develop.

"The Kress building is beautiful and will be preserved," said Iorio, who has a master's degree in history and concentrated much of her studies on the civil rights era. "Those other two buildings are not attractive. I don't think they bring anything to our downtown."

Ending the agreement, she said, is something she hopes to accomplish before leaving office in April. She said she proposed asking the current council, almost all of whom weren't in office in 2006, to review it.

Ex-council member Linda Saul-Sena and her former colleague John Dingfelder opposed removing the landmark status. Saul-Sena said she'll ask the council this week to keep the agreement in place.

"I'm concerned that just because two of the proponents for protecting the building are no longer on City Council that this issue has resurfaced," Saul-Sena said. "We said that they could take down the building, but maintain the facade. That's a modest thing."

Saul-Sena was an ardent defender of historic preservation during her nearly 20 years on the council. She has seen many sad endings for historic buildings. In past decades, cigar factories, the Lykes building and the old Maas Brothers department store crumbled under the wrecking ball. In 2008, an old school in Ybor City was leveled after its roof caved in from years of neglect.

"We don't have much historic fabric left," Saul-Sena said.

Joanna Tokley, former head of the Tampa Urban League, said she'll also ask the council to protect the facades, something the developers agreed to do.

"All of a sudden when they think people have forgotten or nobody would say anything, they say we don't want to keep the facades," she said.

Offers to erect a commemorative plaque or turn the architectural elements into a display at the Tampa Bay History Center aren't enough, Tokley said.

"There's so much history lost in the black community," she said, noting that Central Avenue, once the epicenter of Tampa's black life, no longer holds any evidence of that era.

"It shows to me a lack of respect for the history of African-Americans," she said.

Tokley, Miller and Saul-Sena are facing resistance.

City Council member Curtis Stokes, formerly head of the Hills­borough County NAACP, said a plaque and history display adequately honor what happened at Woolworth's.

"To me, that's perfect," said Stokes, who toured the building's gutted interior this week. "There's nothing there. The counter doesn't exist. The stools aren't there. We don't even have the Woolworth letters that were originally outside the building."

Jason said there are no immediate plans to tear down the buildings, but if that does happen, the history can be honored.

"The important aspect of the Woolworth building is the event that took place there," she said. "If that event was memorialized in some fashion, does it really matter if a portion of the facade remains?"

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Preservation of Woolworth facade sparks a battle 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 9:51pm]
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