Times Staff Writers
TAMPA — The City Council on Thursday blasted the Hillsborough County School Board for allowing a historic building it owned to crumble and took steps to make sure no other old buildings suffer the same fate.
A portion of the structure, built in 1913 and owned by the School Board until last year, collapsed last week.
Council Chairman Tom Scott said he has driven by the building numerous times in recent years and seen broken windows.
"You have a school system with billions of dollars, and they couldn't board up the windows," he said.
"They spent it on travel," said Joseph Caetano, referring to a current controversy over the School Board's travel budget.
The building on 10th Street near Ybor City has been vacant for three years, with little done to protect it despite the frequent pleas of City Council member Linda Saul-Sena and the rest of the council.
The building served as Gary Elementary School from 1914 to 1979 and then as an adult school. Roof leaks forced the school district to close the building in 2005.
Last year, John Simon of JVS Contracting bought the property for $331,000, with plans to turn it into a sports facility for private schools. He is trying to get the property rezoned, but the council recently delayed a vote while parking and other issues are worked out.
On Tuesday, School Board member Candy Olson blamed the city for dropping the ball on the building. She said the school might not be in its current state if the owner had gotten permits from the city to work on it.
School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said the district doesn't have a funding source to restore an old building that can't be used as a school.
But Saul-Sena said that long before the sale of the building to the contractor, a School Board representative told the City Council that the board would protect the building. A local preservation group paid for tarps to help shield it from rain.
Saul-Sena said it's too late to do anything about the Gary building, but steps need to be taken to ensure that similar problems don't occur in either the public or private sectors.
"Tampa doesn't have that many nice old buildings left," she said. "We need to remember the pain of this and use it to spur us to do something quickly."
The city doesn't need to mandate that historic buildings be rehabilitated, she said, but can require that they be mothballed to standards that will prevent decay.
The council asked the city staff to report back in 60 days on what can be done for other buildings.
One step in the works would toughen regulations on "demolition by neglect," said Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager.
At an emergency code enforcement hearing three days after the Gary school collapse, Simon was given 15 days to stabilize the building and clean up the rubble. Structural engineers will determine whether it can be safely stabilized. If it can't, other options will be considered at another hearing.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.