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Central Tampa News

Tampa council to revisit issue of Woolworth, Newberry buildings

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:06 PM
TAMPA -

In its heyday, North Franklin Street was the backbone of Tampa's economy, a bustling thoroughfare of car dealerships, department stores and Italian restaurants.

When the city's urban renewal projects in the late 1960s razed nearby neighborhoods, many businesses moved, leaving rows of boarded storefronts and empty buildings.

While proposals were floated through the years to redevelop the blighted commercial district, it never recovered. Landmark structures such as the former S.H. Kress building, the adjacent F.W. Woolworth and J.J. Newberry buildings have fallen into disrepair as their owners battled with the city over whether to designate the buildings historical.

In an effort to preserve the crumbling facades of the Woolworth and Newberry buildings, the city council in 2006 approved an agreement outlining steps that the developers must take without a historic designation - including regular property inspections by city staff.

The developers, Doran Jason Group, say the agreement had the opposite effect, forcing them to shelve plans to renovate the buildings while they have continued to deteriorate.

On Thursday, the issue goes before an entirely new council, which will vote on a request from Mayor Pam Iorio and the developers to terminate the 2006 settlement agreement.

Iorio said the agreement - including a requirement from the previous city council that the developers pay a $500,000 transportation fee - is inequitable to the developers, which has placed the city in legal jeopardy. She said the requirement that part of the facade of both buildings be preserved is standing in the way of downtown redevelopment efforts.

"This is impractical and will only lead to both buildings standing dormant until those provisions are eliminated," she said. "You cannot reasonably expect someone to tear down an entire building but somehow keep a small part of a facade intact."

Tampa Attorney John Grandoff, who represents the Doran Group, said terminating the agreement will put his clients "on a level playing field" with other property owners.

The Kress building, which used to house the S.H. Kress department store, has already been labeled historic and won't be affected if the settlement agreement is terminated.

The dispute dates back to 2005, when developer Jeannette Jason of the Doran Jason Group unveiled plans to convert the decrepit buildings into a massive condo complex.

The project called for a 44-story tower with 574 units on one block and two towers
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one with 296 units and the other with 105 units, on the other block. The Kress building, which is between the two buildings, would have served as a lobby with office and retail space.

Preservationists argued that the buildings played a critical role in Tampa's history and should be labeled historic. The Woolworth building was the site of lunch-counter sit-ins in the 1960s. The Newberry store was founded in 1911 and is noted for its architecture.

Historic buildings cannot be significantly altered, except under extreme circumstances.

At the time, the council voted to designate the buildings as historic, brushing aside protests from the developers, but several months later reversed that decision.

Instead, the developer agreed to preserve the buildings' facades. Oversight would be by city staff rather the city's Architectural Review Commission, which has a reputation for being hypercritical on projects and requiring costly materials be used in renovations.

Despite the apparent victory, the developers put the properties up for sale shortly after the agreement was signed and declared the redevelopment project all but dead.

In a letter to city council members this week, Jeanette Jason blasted previous councils for "obstructive actions" that have prevented them from redeveloping the properties.

"The city, it seems, applies cumbersome, unnecessary and restrictive regulations to properties that are most complicated to develop; while paving the way for developers of properties where no historic preservation is involved," she wrote in the six-page letter.

Former Council member John Dingfelder, who was on the board at the time and had pushed for the buildings to be declared historical, said the recession and housing crisis, not the city's actions, was the reason that the redevelopment project was shelved.

"It's sour grapes for this developer to now blame council, or the city, for their problems," he said.

Several council members said they haven't decided if they will vote to terminate the agreement, but Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena - the foremost critics of the developers - are no longer on the council, having resigned to run for the county commission.

"I'll say this much - the buildings, as they currently stand, aren't doing the city one damn bit of good," said Councilman Charlie Miranda. "Something has got to change."

Interim council member Curtis Stokes, who replaced Saul-Sena, said he was initially concerned about preserving the interior of the Woolworth building, where lunch-counter sit-ins were held by civil rights activists in the 1960s.

But the former president of the county's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was satisfied with a pledge from Jason to memorialize the building's role in the civil rights struggle with a curbside plaque.

"There's nothing left to preserve," Stokes said, after touring the empty shell of a building this week.

Stokes, a bank executive, said he also has concerns about the "government interfering with the private sector," which he believes gets in the way of economic progress.

Exactly what would happen to the buildings if the agreement is terminated is unclear.

In the letter to council members, Jason said there are no plans to demolish the buildings or renovate them, although she is considering renting them out to tenants.

She gave no indication of any intention to sell the property, though lifting the restrictions would probably make the property more desirable.

If the agreement remains in effect,
Jason warned, the Doran Group will "have no choice but to leave the buildings boarded and vacant" until economy improves.

"Given the current condition of the economy, justification for new high rise development on these sites could be five, 10, or even 15 years away," she wrote.


Reporter Christian M. Wade can be reached at (813) 259-7679

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