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DECREPIT HULK OR A WORK OF ART?

Chain-link fences posted with "no trespassing" signs wrap around Tampa's empty art museum, its demolition coming soon.

Neil Cosentino stands on the sidewalk as the downtown traffic flies by, looking at the vacant building and not seeing what others see there.

The retired fighter pilot and current activist does not see a flat ugly expanse of old concrete grown obsolete in the face of plans for a downtown arts district, a park, a riverwalk. He does not see an outdated building easily gone in the name of progress.

What Cosentino sees behind that fence is waste, government waste being something of a bone to pick with him. He sees what looks to him to be senseless and expensive destruction for reasons he doesn't get.

"I get a mental hernia, it's so irrational," says the silver-haired 70-year-old, the fighter pilot still in there. "It's like the Mad Hatter's tea party."

He is a pleasant enough guy to talk to, unless yours happens to be the shoe in which he is a particularly persistent pebble. We walk around the edges of the demolition site, him talking, me trying to see what he sees in that building: Office space for planned nearby art and children's museums; a restaurant and "cabaret" on the river; maybe space for African-American art. And save the parking garage, even if it does flood.

Cosentino and the small group pushing to save the old museum insist they are not against a new one, though they do refer to the impending destruction as a "crime against the humanities" and those who support it "art barbarians."

Others call the place, scheduled for demolition for years, functionally outdated. But even when I throw in the word "ugly," Cosentino is undeterred. Undeterred may well be his middle name.

"I can change the facade," he says. "Ever seen an ugly woman in a beautiful dress? You forget she's ugly."

Some would call this last-ditch and almost-certainly doomed effort Cosentino's latest windmill - like the old Tampa Stadium when they built the slicker RayJay. He had hoped the Big Sombrero could be saved, but it made way for parking.

"USF could have been playing in that stadium," he says now.

Cosentino has pushed for everything from getting the Olympics to putting an expressway tunnel under Gandy Boulevard. His critics call his ideas too wild, too off the charts. Then there's that old Gandy Bridge.

People said saving it was crazy talk. Cosentino, a leader in the cause, kept pushing. Public officials on both sides of the bay came around. And so we have the Friendship Trail Bridge linking Pinellas and Hillsborough, a ribbon of concrete across the water that is a favorite of runners, walkers, bikers and skaters.

As we're talking, a man in a hard hat comes up to inquire as to what we're doing. Before the mostly polite exchange is over, Cosentino is asking about the project's permit, wondering if they've done the proper paperwork to pull this off. There has been talk of trying to get an injunction, or even a complaint to police on destruction of public property.

Even if he is wrong, dead wrong, it seems a good thing people like Cosentino are out there watching, questioning, refusing to be quiet. There at the fence, we say goodbye, and he is off.

Need to check on those permits, he says.

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