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City buys park at bargain price

Despite higher bids and bottom lines, Lykes Bros. sold the city of Tampa a downtown park Wednesday _ at a discount.

During a news conference where the wind almost swept away a giant replica deed, Lykes accepted $2.85-million for the one block of grass and small trees, which the city has been leasing for the past two years. Lykes had been offered more than $3-million for the land at Franklin Street and Kennedy Boulevard. But the company felt the space was perfect for a park and was willing to take less from the city.

"This is exactly what the city needs," said John Brabson, chairman of Lykes Bros. Corp. "This park is for all the people of Tampa."

These days, with its hibiscus trees and gas-burning street lamps, the park is a nice place for lunch or a stroll after work. But years ago the land stoked a fiery controversy between Lykes and historic preservationists. Lykes had proposed to tear down two old buildings on the land and put up a skyscraper for its headquarters.

Lykes won the fight, and in 1993 the First National Bank and Tampa Gas Co. buildings were demolished. But Lykes later decided against putting a headquarters there.

So the empty land became a park, maintained by the Downtown Partnership, an organization that attracts businesses to Tampa. On Wednesday, after months of negotiating, the city bought the land, the only restriction being that the space be used as a park and named Lykes Square. The city paid for the park by refinancing municipal bonds.

Mayor Dick Greco, who penned his name at the bottom of the replica deed that was as big as a movie poster, said the park was a great deal.

"There will come a day when it's impossible for a city to buy a park," Greco said. "Parks are things you can't replace, things that you can never have again."

Before he left Lykes Square on Wednesday, Greco hinted that he is eyeing other pieces of green space to turn into city parks.

"I love trees and grass and nature and the wild as much as anyone else," the mayor said.