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Tampa mayor selects team to transform historic federal courthouse into luxury hotel

A four-company team of private developers has been chosen to redevelop Tampa’s historic but long-closed U.S. courthouse.
A four-company team of private developers has been chosen to redevelop Tampa’s historic but long-closed U.S. courthouse.
Published Jan. 6, 2012

TAMPA — A development team led by a Memphis company has been chosen to undertake a $22 million privately financed transformation of Tampa's historic but long-dormant federal courthouse.

After 16 months of construction employing 425 workers, the 106-year-old building should reopen as a luxury hotel with a staff of 100, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday.

"This restoration will breathe new life into downtown," he said.

The team Buckhorn selected, Tampa Hotel Partners LLC, is led by the Development Service Group (DSG) of Memphis.

The city and the developer still must negotiate a detailed development agreement, but Buckhorn said he is confident that the team has the expertise and resources to reanimate a Tampa treasure.

With its stately three-story columns, tall windows and neoclassic design, the courthouse ranks as one of the city's most distinctive historic buildings.

City officials have talked for years about redeveloping it. Previous ideas have included using it as home for the Tampa Museum of Art, charter schools, a photography museum and offices for nonprofit organizations.

This new proposal includes a first-floor restaurant in a space long occupied by one of the building's grandest courtrooms. It's too early to predict what the room rates would be, but the hotel would promote "cultural heritage tourism."

Tampa Hotel Partners was one of five groups that last month turned in redevelopment proposals for the courthouse in response to a request from the city. The other bidders were 21c Museum Hotels, the Giunta Group Ltd., HRI Properties and Impact Properties.

"What set this particular group apart, first and foremost, was that there was no 'ask' of the city, that they were going to fund it entirely themselves," Buckhorn said.

As proposed, the Tampa Hotel Partners would lease the building from the city for $1 per year for the first and second years, $10,000 per year for the third through the 30th years and $15,000 annually for years 31 through 60.

Just as important, Buckhorn said, was that DSG has experience doing this kind of project. The company won the 2010 Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Award for Adaptive Reuse for the four-star Le Meridien Hotel in Philadelphia.

Also on the team are:

• 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.

• 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 Español de Tampa.

DSG owner and principal Gary Prosterman said the team was drawn to the courthouse first because it believes in Tampa's market. Not only the Tampa Convention Center, but all of downtown — from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, now under construction — suggest an ability to generate business, he said.

"Second, we love old buildings," he said. "It's a beautiful structure, and we think there's an opportunity to do something very unique, very classy, very upscale, that would be very hard to duplicate today."

Also, Prosterman liked what he heard about Buckhorn's desire to make a renovated courthouse an anchor for the city's planned "Avenue of the Arts."

Last year, the city hired a landscape architecture firm to develop a plan to turn Zack Street into a pedestrian-friendly showcase for public art. The idea is to make Zack a gateway to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children's Museum and the Riverwalk.

"Today we are one day closer to that vision becoming a reality," Buckhorn said.

The four-story courthouse has stood vacant for 13 years. Along with the Corinthian columns at its front portico, it has courtrooms with ceilings up to 20 feet high, plus lots of oak trim, brass fixtures, ornate chandeliers and green-on-white marble wainscoting.

The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It closed after the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse opened two blocks to the north in 1998. The federal government deeded it to the city for $1 in 2003. The city spends nearly $100,000 a year, mostly on air conditioning, to maintain it.

Necessary repairs are expected to include asbestos remediation and fixing water damage from a broken pipe.

Another challenge: a lack of on-site parking. But that can be addressed, Prosterman said, either in the parking garage directly across Florida Avenue or through the use of nearby parking lots and valet attendants.

"Certainly, there's a long way to go," Prosterman said. "There's a lot of hard work that has to be done to get this thing executed."