Lykes Bros. won a key victory Wednesday in its fight to demolish two historic landmarks in the heart of downtown Tampa.
After an all-day hearing, the City Council cleared the way for Lykes to tear down the First National Bank and Tampa Gas Co. buildings.
The demolition will create a huge vacant lot immediately next to the Franklin Street pedestrian mall and virtually across the street from City Hall.
Designated as historic landmarks late last year, each building is more than 50 years old and features classical as well as Italian-style architectural touches. Preservationists have tried to save them as symbols of Tampa's transformation from a 19th century port town to a modern city.
"I think we're sort of chipping away at our community identity," Andrew Hamm, chairman of the Historic Tampa/Hillsborough County Preservation Board, said after the decision.
Despite the buildings' history, the council concluded that preserving them would put an economic hardship on Lykes Bros., a business empire built on banking, shipping, cattle and citrus.
"This is probably the most painful motion I have made in two years on council," said council member Scott Paine, who has strongly defended Tampa's historic preservation ordinance.
Even so, Paine and most of his colleagues rejected the findings of the city's Architectural Review Commission, which denied Lykes' applications for demolition permits in April.
After hours of debate touching on everything from construction estimates to janitorial costs, the council concluded that Lykes showed that renovating the buildings would not bring the company a reasonable economic return.
Preservationists contended that the vacant office buildings could be renovated for as little as $15 a square foot, or about $2.23-million. Lykes' experts said the job could not be done for less than $55 a square foot, or $8.1-million.
Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who has a background in urban planning and a strong interest in preservation, pleaded with her colleagues not to consider a renovation as a traditional real estate investment.
"Don't just take a passive position and say it's doomed," she said. "I think it can be economically viable."
Moments after casting the only vote to save the buildings, Saul-Sena left the room in tears.
While other council members said they also would hate to see the buildings fall, they could not justify forcing Lykes to spend the money to save the structures.
"It's going to be tough to see these buildings go, but I want to see this city live up to its potential," council member Rudy Fernandez said.
Noting that Tampa has worked hard to attract new business, he said, "we do not do this by causing economic hardships to major property owners."
Lykes attorney David Mechanik welcomed the decision but could not predict when demolition would start.
"My client has expressed his interest in tearing the buildings down and nothing has changed in that regard," he said. "The intent would be (to begin) as soon as possible."
Lykes has sued the city and the Architectural Review Commission over the historic designation decisions in state and federal court. Mechanik could not say whether the company would drop the suits now that it has permission to raze the buildings.
Despite Wednesday's decision, Hamm said preservationists might be able to arrange a purchase and renovations of the buildings for use by non-profit organizations and other agencies.
Hamm expects officials with the Trust for Public Land to contact Lykes about a possible acquisition this week. Representatives of the trust could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Lykes paid $4.75-million for the property in 1982. The buildings have stood vacant since early last year. Lykes plans to build its corporate headquarters on the block, but it has given no indication when it might begin construction.