TAMPA — It's been more than a year since Tampa officials picked Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart to renovate the city's old Water Works Building.
But on Thursday, Gonzmart finally got the lease he needs to create a new restaurant — though not a Columbia — inside the historic pump-house.
"This is going to be my legacy," Gonzmart told the City Council before it approved the lease.
For Gonzmart, it's an emotional venture. He said he was born three blocks away. His mother and grandparents lived nearby. And the water works supplied the drinking water when his great-grandfather opened the Columbia in 1905. His goal, he said, is to create something that helps revive and respects the history of Tampa Heights.
"It's going to be a really cool project," Mayor Bob Buckhorn says. "I think you'll have a destination restaurant that will be as close to Tavern on the Green as Tampa can afford."
As approved, the restaurant will lease the property for $1 a year for 20 years, with the option to renew for up to three more 20-year terms. The building is on the eastern bank of the Hillsborough River a few blocks north of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Gonzmart will pay to transform the building into a 6,800-square-foot restaurant and, eventually, a microbrewery. The budget for the privately financed project started at $1.4 million, but now tops $4 million.
"I need to do this before it gets any higher," Gonzmart told the council. The cost of restoring the building's windows — not including the frames — is more than $170,000.
Council members praised Gonzmart's attention to preserving historical detail in the building, which was built in 1903.
"It's a wonderful project, and I am so impressed with what you're doing," council member Mary Mulhern said.
For the first five years after the restaurant opens, Gonzmart will have the option of buying the Water Works Building for $500,000. After that, he can still buy the property, but at its appraised market value.
For the restaurant — Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits — Gonzmart has teamed up with Keith Sedita, who was with OSI Restaurant Partners for 13 years and helped develop the Carmel Café concept. The Beck Group will renovate the interior of the water works while preserving the historic character of its red-brick exterior.
The restaurant's name comes from nearby Ulele Spring, which is named for a 16th century Timucuan chief's daughter who saved the life of a young Spanish explorer. The lease provides the right to water from Ulele Spring for use in the microbrewery or an on-site brew pub.
Negotiating the lease took "much longer" than Buckhorn expected, because the Water Works Building is near the long-troubled Heights development.
"It was complicated," he said. "The Heights property was in foreclosure and bankruptcy, so there were a lot of uncertainties on both sides as to what the future looked like. It took a long time to get it untangled."
Six years ago, the Heights was envisioned as a large redevelopment that combined condos, shops and offices overlooking the river. The old Trolley Barn, a red-brick warehouse with "Tampa Armature Works" painted across its top, is a signature landmark on the property.
But as the Heights project sputtered and plans unraveled, lenders foreclosed on delinquent loans. By mid 2011 the whole mess had landed in Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings.
Last year, the Heights emerged from those troubles with new owners, Riverside Heights Holdings, a company formed by Tampa investors Adam Harden and Chas Bruck.
"We now have owners there who are working with us," Buckhorn said.
And there are two other key projects in the works: construction of the Riverwalk, from the Straz to Water Works Park and renovation of the park itself.
When it's all done, Buckhorn said he expects the area to offer something unique.
"I think it will help to bring attention to the rest of Tampa Heights and stimulate additional development there," he said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.