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Historic Tampa courthouse being rebuilt to court guests

Published Feb. 14, 2013

TAMPA — After 15 years of uncertainty and frustration, work is starting on one of the most ambitious downtown redevelopment projects in recent Tampa history.

"I've been waiting a long time for this day," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday at the groundbreaking for a $25 million project to transform Tampa's long-vacant federal courthouse into a 130-room boutique hotel. "I never stopped believing that this could be returned to its glory."

Developers doing the privately funded makeover will have a lot to work with.

The 108-year-old courthouse boasts a beaux-arts design and neoclassical elements, including towering windows and three-story Corinthian columns flanking the front doors.

"A show-stopper," said Gary Prosterman, the owner and principal of Development Services Group (DSG) of Memphis, the lead company in the development team. "You can't drive by and not do a double-take."

Inside, there's even more: courtrooms with ceilings nearly 20 feet high, terrazzo floors, brass fixtures, ornate chandeliers, double doors covered in leather, lots of oak trim and green-on-white marble wainscoting.

Work, mostly on the inside, will begin in the next few weeks. In 14 months, the four-story building is expected to reopen as a Le Meridien Hotel.

The main courtroom on the first floor will be converted into a restaurant. Judges' chambers with 10-foot ceilings will become guest rooms. The front lawn will offer outdoor dining, and a majestic ceremonial courtroom on an upper floor will be reborn as a 2,400-square-foot ballroom. A wall on the main level will be reserved for works by local artists.

Le Meridien Hotel is expected to promote what's known as "cultural heritage tourism," with room rates expected to be $170 to $220 per night in-season and $120 to $170 out of season.

The courthouse was closed 15 years ago and was deeded to the city five years after that. Since then it has sat vacant, air-conditioned at a cost of nearly $100,000 a year to keep down the mold.

In 2011, after more than a decade of false starts, the city went out for bids from developers interested in converting it into a high-end hotel.

Five responded. One offered to cut the city in on its profits. But city officials went with DSG, which has done 25 such projects in 16 cities.

"We were very fortunate to find someone with the exact qualifications that we needed," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's administrator for economic opportunity. In 2010, DSG won a Pennsylvania historic preservation award for converting an old YMCA building in downtown Philadelphia into a four-star Le Meridien Hotel. (Another key factor was that DSG did not seek any city funding for its project.)

The development team also includes:

• Ferrell Redevelopment of Tampa, the historical architectural consultant, which has experience with restoring historic properties throughout Florida, including the Seidenberg Cigar Factory in Ybor City.

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• Kobi Karp, the project architect from Miami, who has earned awards from the Miami Design Preservation League and Dade Heritage Trust.

• The Beck Group of Tampa, the construction manager, which has redeveloped such properties as Dallas' historic Union Station and the Hillsborough County Education Foundation El Centro Espanol de Tampa.

"Tampa is a great city with great resources," ranging from the Tampa Convention Center to the Port of Tampa to the University of South Florida's new Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, Prosterman said. "New businesses are growing here, so it's a very vibrant city."

Prosterman also likes the city's plan to make the renovated courthouse an anchor on one end of a planned "Avenue of the Arts." The city has hired a landscape architect to turn Zack Street into a pedestrian-friendly showcase for public art that leads from the courthouse to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children's Museum and the Riverwalk.

Buckhorn said he's confident that restoring such an iconic building will attract residents, stores and restaurants to the north end of downtown.

"This is not the end," he said. "This is just the beginning."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

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