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Owner of century-old Tampa building fights to prevent historic designation

Among owner Kolter Urban’s reasons is that restoring the building would be an economic hardship.
Steve Barber, a Kolter Urban development executive, places his hands in a large crack on a wall inside 520 N Tampa St. in Tampa.
Steve Barber, a Kolter Urban development executive, places his hands in a large crack on a wall inside 520 N Tampa St. in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jun. 29

TAMPA — A crack runs down a wall of 520 N Tampa St. from the fifth-floor roof to the foundation.

On the third floor, the crack is deep enough to see sunlight on the other side and wide enough to fit a hand.

That crack might decide the fate of the century-old downtown Tampa building.

Real estate developer Kolter Urban says it will cost around $20 million to restore the building for which they paid $7.5 million and, even then, it could not survive being incorporated into a 55-story condo tower planned for that site.

So they want to demolish it.

But in May, the Tampa’s Historic Preservation Commission declared 520 N Tampa St. meets the criteria for local historic landmark designation, stopping demolition for now.

It is up to the Tampa City Council to decide whether they want to force that designation on the owner, enabling them to rule against demolition. That decision could be made July 28.

Kolter Urban has filed a legal petition against the city of Tampa, demanding that demolition be allowed to proceed immediately.

“The building has questionable structural integrity,” said Brian Van Slyke, regional president for Kolter, “especially if we were to take a direct hit from a major storm,” but stabilizing it comes with too high of a price.

These two century-old buildings — 514 N Tampa St. and 520 N Tampa St. — might be razed.
These two century-old buildings — 514 N Tampa St. and 520 N Tampa St. — might be razed. [ Paul Guzzo ]

Kolter purchased 514 N Tampa St. and the neighboring 520 N Tampa St. in December with plans to raze both for the $400 million development that would sell 311 condos at an average price of $1.35 million.

They were shocked when their demolition permit was temporarily denied on the basis that the building could be a historic landmark, Van Slyke said. “We didn’t think it would have to go to this stage.”

City of Tampa spokesperson Adam Smith said the city cannot comment on pending litigation.

Kolter’s lawsuit and their executives argue the following:

  • In 1988, the Tampa City Council determined that the building’s block should be designated a 100% redevelopment block because it did not contain historic or architecturally significant structures.
  • Despite the historic preservation program existing for 35 years, the city has not asked for 520 N Tampa St. to be designated a local landmark until now.
  • No historic events occurred at 520 N Tampa St., which was originally used by Tarr Furniture and is currently home to First Watch restaurant.
  • Among the reasons the preservation commission said it qualifies as a historic landmark is that it was designed by Bonfoey and Elliott, the architectural firm behind Old City Hall, the Centro Asturiano building and other local historic landmarks. The only evidence that they designed 520 N Tampa St., Van Slyke said, are mentions in newspaper articles in 1912 announcing the construction. The city has no documentation to support that claim or that the building was a significant accomplishment for Bonfoey and Elliott.
  • Kolter also alleges the city went behind their back to ask the Florida Department of State whether 514 and 520 N Tampa St. are eligible as national historic landmarks, a symbolic designation that does not save them from demolition but makes it easier to acquire local landmark status. The state said 514 N Tampa St., once home to the Tampa Tribune and a hotel that housed Clara Barton, had undergone too many changes to its exterior to be a landmark but that 520 N Tampa St. “is potentially eligible” if the property owner wants the designation.

“From our perspective, by virtue of us not consenting to the designation, the building is ineligible,” said Steve Barber, a development executive with Kolter.

Kolter is also asking that the city pay their legal fees associated with this issue.

A ceiling is damaged on the fifth floor of 520 N Tampa St. in Tampa.
A ceiling is damaged on the fifth floor of 520 N Tampa St. in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
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Local historic landmark status, which protects the exterior from being modernized and the building from demolition, is typically sought by the owner. Adhering to the regulations can be costly, but some request it to protect their restoration work from future owners.

But the city can force the designation onto an owner if they feel the building is too important to lose or have modernized.

In 2006, the city council considered forcing the designation onto 15 cigar factories but ultimately decided that doing so would infringe on the property owners’ rights.

In 1992, the city council did designate the First National Bank and Tampa Gas Co. buildings as local landmarks against the desire of the owner, the Lykes Bros., who wanted to raze both. So, Lykes petitioned to demolish the buildings because they were an economic hardship due to deteriorating conditions.

The city council then approved demolition.

“Even one of the councilmen who voted it should be a landmark voted it was an economic hardship,” said David Mechanik, the attorney who represented the Lykes Bros. “Economic hardship is included as a safeguard in the ordinance for local historic landmarks. A regulation isn’t supposed to deprive you of a reasonable economic use of your property. If you have to spend X millions of dollars to bring the building up to a reasonable standard and the rate of return is far less than if you just tore the building down, it is an economic hardship.”

The Tarr Furniture Co. and Tampa Tribune building on the 500 block of N Tampa Street in the 1920s.
The Tarr Furniture Co. and Tampa Tribune building on the 500 block of N Tampa Street in the 1920s. [ Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Library ]

Besides the crack, according to Kolter’s structural engineering report shared with the Tampa Bay Times, 520 N Tampa St. does not have steel reinforcement to support the foundation of a building that was designed to be three or four stories and later had a fifth added. There is also severe termite damage, according to the report.

On the fifth floor, Barber set up a laser leveler to show that the floor sags up to 4 inches in some spots, and the ceiling there is supported by 6-by-6-inch wooden posts.

“This is what you would use to frame a deck on your house,” Barber said.

Preservationist Del Acosta said history shows that it will be difficult for the city to force Kolter to restore the building. So maybe it is time for the city to be more proactive in historic preservation.

“Let’s list the 10 most important historic buildings in Tampa that are not yet historic landmarks,” Acosta said. “And let’s start the designation process now before it is too late to save them.”

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