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Blaze strikes at heart of Ybor revival

The Park at Ybor City was a key part of plans to turn the area into a magnet for young professionals.

Hours after the Park at Ybor City burned down Friday morning, insurance adjustors from Lloyd's of London were poking through the ruins. With their help, the unfinished $33-million luxury apartment complex will be started all over again.

But you can't insure a neighborhood's revival.

The Park at Ybor City wasn't just any building. Encompassing five city blocks, the 454-unit development was a key part of a multiyear plan to turn Ybor City from a one-lane, late-night keg party for teens and twenty-somethings into an urban oasis for young professionals. Construction on the complex, which was to include a pool and health club along with scenic courtyards and some commercial space, was about half finished when the fire struck.

"We're all in shock," said William Dobbins of the project's Tampa-based architects, Robbins Bell & Kreher.

Friday's accidental torching of the Park is expected to set back its construction schedule by about a year, with the finishing touches delayed until the end of 2001. That means it won't be completed in time for a combination of residential and retail grand openings that boosters of Ybor development had counted on for later this year.

The retail side of the new Ybor City is represented by the Centro Ybor project, a movie/retail/restaurant complex set to open Aug. 31. It was not damaged by the fire.

"What this means is that 1,000 or so people that Ybor would have had living there won't be there for a while," said James Moore, a University of South Florida architecture professor who studies urban redevelopment issues. "Other developers were watching to see how (the Park's developer) did, and now they'll be waiting longer, too."

With interest rates rising, it will get tougher for other developers to get such projects going, Moore said.

In the meantime, Ybor City's current residents, shopkeepers and visitors will have to endure yet another year of construction-related noise and street traffic.

They'll also have to cope with the parking crunch. When Camden Development Inc. bought the 8-acre tract for the Park at Ybor City from the city of Tampa and Hillsborough Community College for $5-million in 1998, the Houston, Texas-based real estate firm eliminated more than 1,000 parking spaces located on the site.

Business for bars, restaurants and retailers also will be hurt. Many were looking forward to the added customer traffic from the new complex, where rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments were expected to average about $1,000 a month. The first units were scheduled to be completed this summer.

Camden Development is one of the bay area's largest apartment owners and managers. The firm owns and manages 13 apartment buildings with more than 6,400 units in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. These include the 832-unit Lookout Pointe and the 770-unit Live Oaks in Tampa, and the 688-unit Mallard Pointe in St. Petersburg.

Camden executives did not return phone calls for comment Friday, but Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said he spoke with company officials, who promised to rebuild.

The firm's publicly traded affiliate, Camden Property Trust, reported revenues of $371-million and net income of $62-million in 1999. At the market's close Friday, Camden Property's stock was unchanged at $28.31.

In its annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Camden Property said none of its projects accounted for more than 2.8 percent of the company's total revenues. In other words, Friday's fire at the Park is unlikely to cause more than a small dent in its developer's financials.

Nevertheless, planning and building the Park has been a huge task.

Since floating its winning bid for the site, Camden Development and its subcontractors have applied for 156 permits, according to city records. Drawings produced by the companies number in the dozens. Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh helped finance the project.

Camden chose to frame the building with wood, which was to be covered with stucco and brick. Floor joists, roof trusses and all of the exterior plywood sheathing on the three-story buildings were made of wood or glued-wood pieces.

Upon completion, the 800,000-square-foot project would have had sprinklers in every room and fire walls between apartments. But none of those features had been installed. Nothing was there to stop the flames from spreading.

"It's based on economics," architect Dobbins said of the wood construction. "I mean, there are budgets, and the developer has to make these projects work financially. We were in compliance with the fire codes and everything."

Dobbins predicted the project will be rebuilt the same way it was originally erected. To do otherwise might require new permits and would delay the project further. Besides, he said, wood-frame structures are very safe once completed.

But Bobby Owens, a 70-year-old insurance agent who watched the apartment complex fire from afar, wondered aloud whether Camden might change its approach.

"Maybe they'll build them out of block now," he said.

_ Times staff writer Leanora Minai contributed to this report.

Two firefighters help a third after he was overcome by heat battling Friday's blaze in Ybor city. More than 120 firefighters came to the scene.