Officials in Tampa talk a big game about historic preservation. But if you want to see the record, drive by the old Gary school on Tenth Avenue, near Ybor City, where early Tuesday the western side of the landmark collapsed, sending a wall of 100-year-old brick tumbling down the fire escape in a travesty entirely preventable.
There is plenty of blame to go around — from the Hillsborough school district, which unloaded the property with the usual disdain that it treats its inventory of historic structures; to the developer, who failed to adequately secure the property; to the city, which tied itself in knots, as usual, in bureaucratic tape instead of working hard to protect this historic landmark.
Who can be surprised? Neighborhood leaders near the school, which was built in 1913, two years before Gary incorporated as an independent city (later annexed by the city of Tampa) had warned Tampa officials — as recently as last week — that the school had fallen into disrepair and risked being lost out of sheer neglect. Indeed, even before its wall and roof came tumbling down, the Gary school had broken and missing windows; the city even chipped in $20,000 for a tarp to protect the roof from the damage of wind, sun and rain.
With so many red flags over a period of time, why did the city not intervene? Why was the property allowed to sit without windows during the hurricane season; why was there no deadline for reconstruction; why was the overriding focus on historic preservation lost to smaller concerns over landscaping and parking? It was incredible to watch two city attorneys last week trip over themselves to draw the City Council's attention away from the condition of the school and toward the developer's request to renovate the property — as if its condition was not an issue in going forward.
City officials entombed themselves in "emergency" meetings after the school collapsed. Too bad they didn't show the same sense of urgency any time over the last two years when the deteriorating condition of the Gary school was readily apparent. This too little, too late approach is also evident in St. Petersburg, where the city recently cited itself for violating code in allowing Mirror Lake Complex, home to the nation's oldest shuffleboard club, to fall into disrepair. If what happened to the Gary school does not shame the city of Tampa enough to change its preservation policies, then it might as well throw out the historic preservation process and give back the tax money that goes to support it. The history of our community either means something or not.