The historic trolley barn along Tampa's gritty riverfront has become a hotspot for hosting big parties.
More than 6,000 people packed the place for Oktoberfest, drinking 102 kegs of beer over three days. Thousands more came for Nude Nite, Pride on Seventh and Tampa Bay Fashion Week. Trouble is, the old building doesn't meet fire safety rules, according to city officials.
The Fire Marshal's office has put the kibosh on large indoor events and ordered the venue's development manager, Darren Booth, to submit plans to bring the building up to code.
"The venue isn't approved,'' said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Bill Wade. "It was built for industrial but now he wants to make it a place of assembly. That requires a whole new mind-set.''
A few years ago, the 1910 brick building became part of a project to redevelop downtown's northern edge with condos, offices, stores and cafes.
In the past year, the 70,000-square-foot building at Ola and Seventh avenues has hosted various events indoors and outside in tents along the waterfront. Party promoters like the raw feel of the space, the large grounds, ample parking and close proximity to downtown.
Safety issues didn't become a concern until fire inspectors learned of a Halloween party happening at the Heights. Halloween events, particularly those with haunted houses, face stricter regulations because of the heightened fire dangers associated with them, Wade said.
Upon inspecting the site and reviewing the party plans, fire officials found various problems, from a lack of illuminated fire exits to non-fire-safe decorations. Less than a week before the event, organizers had to cancel it.
"It's disheartening that they would shut us down given that they allowed all those other festivals,'' said event coordinator Johnna Guzman. "I understand their concerns, but I think they applied those rules unfairly.''
The last-minute cancellation left no time to find another venue for the event, which was to benefit Dogma Pet Rescue, she said. Guzman lost about $5,000.
Since then, Fire Marshal Russell Spicola has ordered that no more than 49 people can occupy the building at a time, and the venue must hire a fire inspector to maintain that number. If fire safety plans aren't submitted to the city by Dec. 31, no indoor events of any size will be allowed.
Booth, the Heights' development manager, said he intends to comply with the requirements and eventually wants an annual permit to operate as an event venue. He received a temporary assembly permit for Oktoberfest and other events and couldn't explain why those didn't trigger a thorough fire safety review.
"We've gotten some clear definition of what the fire marshal wants,'' he said. "If you want to take an old warehouse and turn it into an event venue, which is what we're doing, then you have to change it so that it functions as that venue. That's the process I'm going through.''