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Feds narrow in on site for downtown courthouse

A historic church, a budget motel and a landmark Bohemian bar may go the way of the wrecking ball to make way for the $84-million federal court complex planned for downtown Tampa.

Federal officials have okayed a list of five blocks in the north downtown area and hope to choose three by the end of the year. Congress has authorized about $9-million toward land acquisition.

Among sites wanted by the U.S. General Services Administration is the 700 block between Florida Avenue and Marion Street, site of First Presbyterian Church of Tampa on one side and The Hub bar on the other.

The church has been there nearly 100 years, said the Rev. Robert Burkhardt. In recent years, the congregation has shrunk to about 300 members, who already have voted to negotiate with the federal government, he said.

"That's definitely not the same as the congregation is willing to sell," Burkhardt said. "There are too many variables. At this point, we're waiting to hear from them."

Because the government, historically, won't invoke eminent domain against an active church, Burkhardt said First Presbyterian controls its destiny.

"In effect, it's entirely up to us whether we want to do this or not," he said.

Preservationists hope to see the church, built in 1924, incorporated into any new federal complex. "The building is historically significant," said Stephanie Ferrell, executive director of the Historic Tampa Preservation Board. "It should be respected in terms of the plans. There's no reason it couldn't be."

The same block hosts the Florida School of Business along Polk Street; a sandwich shop, salon and video service along Florida Avenue; a newsstand, shoe repair shop, pen store and sandwich shop on Zack Street and The Hub at the corner of Zack and Florida.

The block to the north is vacant and is used as a parking lot. Across Marion Street from that lot, and across Polk Street from the federal Timberlake Annex, is a Days Inn hotel.

Two more vacant lots, to the north and northwest of the Days Inn, also are on the list.

Jan Kuykendall, of the General Service's Atlanta office, said a contractor should begin tests soon to determine whether any of the sites have environmental liabilities or archaeological importance.

While some local officials had favored locating the federal complex closer to the Franklin Street mall, or on sites to the south of the existing courthouse, experts said the potential sites should still help an ailing downtown.

"That part of town particularly needs a shot in the arm," said Jim Cloar, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, noting that recent development has been focused at the south end of downtown.

"I'm not going to predict that because of this the entire north end is going to explode with new development," said Jim Kostoryz, president of TECO Properties and chairman of the partnership. "But it certainly can't hurt."

The government plans to build a 224,000-square foot facility to house an expanded federal district court, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and several federal agencies. More than 1,100 employees are expected to work in the complex, scheduled for completion by 1996.

Pinellas lawyers and officials have been trying to get a satellite federal court built on their side of Tampa Bay. St. Petersburg has even offered 4.6 acres of free land. But there are no plans to build a federal courthouse in Pinellas.