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22-story hotel and apartment tower proposed for downtown Tampa's historic Kress block

The ground floor of the Kress building would become the hotel lobby, with a hotel and residential tower rising above it.
Published Nov. 11, 2014

TAMPA — A team of Tampa and Atlanta developers applied Monday to put a 22-story hotel and apartment tower on the downtown block that's home to the historic S.H. Kress & Co. building.

A former department store on the National Register of Historic Places, the vacant Kress building has long been a downtown void as glaring as a knocked-out tooth.

"I've spent 3½ years trying to get that building done," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who spotlighted the building's history by holding his 2013 state-of-the-city address there. "The historical significance, the ambience, the architecture. … It's pretty important."

As proposed, the ground floor of the Kress would become the hotel's lobby. The facades of the neighboring old F. W. Woolworth and J. J. Newbury buildings would be the fronts of street-level restaurants.

Above them, a new 287-foot-tall tower would rise with 190 hotel rooms and 58 apartments.

Plans call for parking on the lower levels, then an amenity deck, then nine floors for the hotel, topped by nine floors of residential.

The Tampa half of the development team is Walson Ventures, a partnership between commercial real estate adviser Alex Walter and Casey Ellison, whose EWI Construction managed the building of the Oxford Exchange.

The Atlanta half is HRV Hotel Partners, a hospitality development and project management firm.

If those names sound familiar, there's a good reason. Walter, Ellison and HRV also are involved in a recently announced project to build a 187-room boutique hotel on the 1400 block of E Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

The Kress is at 811 N Franklin St., a block north of the Tampa Theatre. Next door on the same block, Woolworth's is historically significant as the site of the sit-in that led to the peaceful desegregation of Tampa's lunch counters in 1960.

Built in 1929, the four-story Kress features bronze marquees, coats of arms and a terra-cotta Renaissance Revival facade. Inside are pendant lights and a 27-foot first-floor ceiling.

"It would be marvelous if something vital and active and sensitive were to happen to that block," said preservationist, writer and former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. "So far, this looks pretty good."

Kress owner Jeannette Jason said recently she had a contract to sell, but has declined to discuss other details.

Officials say the Kress plan would complement a separate redevelopment in its early stages one block to the north on Franklin Street. In September, Carter, an Atlanta-based national real estate developer, filed plans for a 23-story tower with 375 apartments or condominiums.

The old Kress store dates to an era when Tampa's civic life was centered on its downtown, decades before outlying citrus groves and pastures were turned into shopping malls.

Samuel H. Kress launched his department store chain in 1896 in Memphis and ultimately owned about 400 stores, nine in Florida.

Inside his stores, Kress created a template for modern department stores, with wide aisles, shelves crowded with goods and easy checkouts. Outside, Kress' team of architects designed stores that stood out visually while fitting in with the architecture of the community. (The Miami Kress was painted in South Florida pastels.)

Genesco bought the Kress chain in 1964, and, under pressure from newer suburban retail, the brand was liquidated in 1980.

Public and private redevelopment efforts go back more than 25 years.

In 2005, the City Council rezoned the Kress block for 401 apartments and a total of 560,000 square feet of development. But that plan died in the collapse of the real estate bubble.

By comparison, the plan filed Monday calls for a little less than 300,000 square feet of project space, not including parking.

In 2012, a Washington party planner spent an estimated $660,000 turning the Kress, Woolworth and Newberry buildings into a late-night jazz club for the Republican National Convention.

For Buckhorn, getting the new project done would be cause for more lasting celebration.

"It's an important block, it's an important building, and I think we also have an opportunity to do a public art piece that would be a reminder of what happened at the Woolworth's lunch counter," he said. "That's an important part of Tampa's history."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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