Downtown Tampa Block in Limbo
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Sept. 16, 2010
A Woolworth building Tampa, Fla., where sit-ins by Civil Rights protesters occurred in 1960, faces an uncertain future. The building's Art Deco facade, along with that of the nearby J.J. Newberry department store, was to be preserved in a condominium development. Now the developer wants to tear both buildings down.
In 2006, at the recommendation of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, the city council landmarked the S.H. Kress building and the facades of the adjacent Woolworth and Newberry buildings—all of them vacant for the past 15 years. Developer Doran Jason Group, which owns the three buildings, pursued legal action against the city, and weeks later the city council revoked the facade designations. As part of the mediation process, the developer agreed to preserve the two facades.
Last month, however, Jeanette Jason, principal at the Doran Jason Group, told the city council in a letter that the project has stalled because of the 2006 agreement. The developer will "have no choice but to leave the buildings boarded and vacant" until Florida emerges from its economic downturn, she wrote. "Were it not for the obstructive actions of historic preservation and city council in late August 2005 coupled with the down turn in the economy, the Kress building would be renovated today." (Jason did not respond to requests for comment.)
Most city council members had planned to vote to keep the agreement intact, according to the Tampa Tribune. In fact, the council chair, Gwen Miller, participated in a sit-in at Woolworth's in 1960.
Tampa Mayor Pam Ionio last month proposed a resolution to dissolve the 2006 agreement. After protests from local officials and preservation groups, the mayor's office removed the item from the agenda the day before the Aug. 26 meeting.
The vote is on hold indefinitely.
"The administration that was promoting this change to allow the building to potentially be demolished heard from the community,"says Linda Saul-Sena, former city council member for 19 years and board member of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. "We had a number of community people come out to voice their concerns. They came from two sides, the preservation side and the African American community because of the tremendous significance of the Woolworth building."
Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, was one of those voices; he wrote a letter to the city council in support of saving the Kress Block.
"I feel the facades and the Kress Building could easily be saved; I've seen it done in other cities," Chiaramonte says. "I think that what we want to do is preserve as much as Tampa's historic character as we can in our goal to be a great city."
Now preservation groups are tracking the city council agendas in case a new vote is scheduled. "We're not just letting it languish. We're keeping an eye on agendas because we don't know when they're going to sneak it back on," says Becky Clarke, president of Tampa Preservation, Inc. "It's got us worried.”
In the meantime, the three buildings stand empty, and the city's code enforcement department has cited the owners, who have overseen minor repairs. "I constantly called our code enforcement division—I had it, literally, on speed dial—for years to report it," Saul-Sena says. "I didn't want to preserve just the facades; I wanted to preserve the whole buildings."
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