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Tampa seeks developers to turn historic Water Works building into a cafe

Tampa is seeking a developer to renovate the old Water Works Building near the banks of the Hillsborough River north of Interstate 275. The mayor says a restaurant, along with the upgrade of the neighboring park, could energize Tampa Heights.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Tampa is seeking a developer to renovate the old Water Works Building near the banks of the Hillsborough River north of Interstate 275. The mayor says a restaurant, along with the upgrade of the neighboring park, could energize Tampa Heights.

TAMPA — Tampa's next could-be restaurant boasts a sweeping waterfront view, sits beside a park with a freshwater spring and has a history as colorful as its weathered red bricks.

But it's on a quiet, little-traveled street, and this is an iffy time to launch a business.

So the question is: Are there any entrepreneurs ready to renovate the old city Water Works Building into a restaurant or cafe overlooking the Hillsborough River?

Mayor Bob Buckhorn will soon find out.

On Tuesday, the city put out a request for proposals from developers interested in renovating the building and leasing or maybe buying it from the city. Responses are due Oct. 13.

A renovation of the building, along with a planned upgrade of the neighboring Water Works Park, could energize Tampa Heights, Buckhorn said.

"Our waterfront historically has been vastly under-utilized," he said. "It's particularly lacking in restaurants. I think this will be a great opportunity to test the market."

The building is at 1804 N Highland Ave., a few blocks north of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It also is just south of the Heights, an ambitious 48-acre mixed-use project tied up in foreclosure and Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings.

Buckhorn hopes that restoring the Water Works Building could help revive developer interest in Tampa Heights.

"I wanted to get this moving quickly because I think it's a wonderful opportunity for somebody," he said. "We're looking for serious players who want to do a destination-type restaurant."

Darren Booth, the development manager of the Heights, said he is working on a proposal for the Water Works Building, but notes there is plenty of space along the river for restaurants, cafes and wine bars.

"Hopefully, there's some decent interest from lots of folks to want to pour some capital into this end of the city," he said.

The 5-acre Water Works park is home to Ulele Spring, the original water source for the city.

After World War I, the spring was surrounded by a lily pond that was a fashionable spot for Sunday picnics.

In later decades, however, the city turned to other water sources, and the neighborhood languished. By the 1970s, vagrants were living in the park and bathing in the spring, so the city fenced and padlocked the property.

Now the city plans to go out for bids by the end of the year on a project to extend the Riverwalk at the park north to Seventh Avenue and south to Doyle Carlton Drive. Work is expected to start in the first quarter of 2012.

City officials also are working on plans to add lighting and decorative fencing and restore Ulele Spring. The spring was long named for James T. Magbee, a 19th century Tampa judge known for passing out drunk in the street. But five years ago, the City Council changed the name to honor the daughter of a Timucuan chief who saved the life of a young 16th century Spanish explorer.

Money to restore the spring comes from a $50,000 federal grant, $50,000 from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and $50,000 from the city.

The water from the spring pool is currently piped to the river, according to city parks spokeswoman Linda Carlo. The restoration will eliminate the pipe and create a basin where water would pool as it flowed to the river.

The hope is that manatees will find their way into the basin, which will be bridged by the Riverwalk. The spring restoration project is being designed now, with construction expected to start in January.

In the long run, the city's master plan for the park calls for an interactive water feature, pavilions, play areas, and public boat slips on the river — all of which would be a good with a waterfront restaurant, Buckhorn said.

"This could almost be a Tavern on the Green-type restaurant," he said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Tampa seeks developers to turn historic Water Works building into a cafe 09/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 11:17pm]
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