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Lykes' hasty bulldozers

Lykes Brothers wasted no time this week in starting the demolition process that will turn two historic downtown Tampa buildings into a parking lot.

Tampa is already long on parking lots. It is very short of historic buildings.

Once City Council decided that Lykes had valid economic arguments to justify the destruction of the buildings, the demolition permits were quickly in hand and the bulldozers were roaring only hours later. Certainly, these buildings belong to the Lykes family empire. Certainly, in light of the City Council vote, Lykes has the right to do what it wants to with them. But why, once Lykes won its fight with local preservation groups, was the company in such a rush to tear down the Tampa Gas Co. building and the First National Bank building?

With the permits in hand, the company was finally able to deal with preservation groups from a strong position. Lykes no longer had to fear landmarking ordinances, and it no longer had to build a court case challenging the landmarking of its buildings. The company could have set a timetable, perhaps 60 or 90 days, to see if any potential buyers or land swaps _ which Lykes officials had said they would consider _ would appear.

Perhaps Lykes feared an injunction that might stall the demolition. Or perhaps company officials were convinced that there was no economically viable way to save the buildings and compensate the company. More likely, the company was tired of dealing with preservation groups. It wanted the buildings down, and the sooner they were gone, the sooner the bad publicity urrounding the demolition would pass.

Lykes has given no indication that it plans to drop lawsuits against the Preservation Board and some individuals, despite City Council's decision to grant the demolition permits. That indicates that Lykes is not content to knock down two historic buildings; it also is intent on knocking down the city's landmarking ordinance, although the ordinance actually worked as it was designed to in this case.

Lykes should drop these lawsuits as quickly as it is dropping these two buildings.

Local elected officials and preservationists also need to move forward from this experience. The Tampa City Council should change city tax codes to make historic preservation more cost-effective. And if the local community is seriously interested in preserving historic structures, then a fund should be established to buy those buildings and sell them to sympathetic private owners.

Some valuable lessons have been learned from this painful process. Unfortunately, the lessons cost Tampa two fine buildings that were a part of its fabric.