As Tampa Bay closes out Historic Preservation Month, it's important to talk about sense of place

“Within the story of a city, you want to see the layers of history, the layers of development."

click to enlarge A 1920s photo of Tampa's Tarr Furniture Co. building. - Photo via Hillsborough County Public Library
Photo via Hillsborough County Public Library
A 1920s photo of Tampa's Tarr Furniture Co. building.
In city council chambers on Tuesday, Dennis Fernandez stood before the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to explain why the City of Tampa is seeking emergency action to halt the demolition permit for downtown’s old Tarr Furniture building.

Technically at 520 N Tampa St.—and together with the property next door at 514 N Tampa St.—the strip of Tarr storefront now consists of Moxie’s Cafe, the soon-to-relocate Bamboozle Cafe and First Watch. Tampa Bay History Center (TBHC) curator Rodney Kite-Powell told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that 514 N Tampa St. was originally Hotel Arno, erected in 1895 and one of the oldest buildings in downtown Tampa. One building was once home to the Tampa Tribune.

Late last year, Developer Kolter Urban paid $11.64 million for the properties, plus a small alley next door. On Monday, Kolter, responsible for St. Petersburg’s 41-story “One” residential tower, filed plans to build “One Tampa,” a 55-story, 311-unit condo tower that would be the tallest building on Florida’s west coast; condos will sell for an average of $1.35 million, according to lawyers for the buyer (about $419 million if you’re keeping score).

Critics of demolition have pointed to the historic nature of the architecture and argued that the facade could be incorporated into the developer’s new design. Others even alluded to past empty promises of development before demolition and suggested that demolition only be approved if the developer pulls a building permit (Maas Brothers is still a parking lot, after all).

Fernandez, Tampa’s Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Manager, said that his staff believes the structure meets the criteria for National Register designation and made his case to the HPC by citing city code and an evaluation by his office. Armed with dramatically large binders for every HPC member and Fernandez’s staff, lawyers for Kolter mostly cited damage inside the building to make a case for the demo permit to go forward.

The discussion painfully lasted roughly three hours, but in the end, the HPC voted in favor of the emergency action to stop the demolition permit (only Susan Swift voted no). The matter is now in the hands of Tampa City Council which has officially been asked to review the plans for the parcel and halt Kolter’s demolition permit.

“Any historic building can be made to look like it is impossible to restore,” Vivian Salaga, HPC Chair, said in her comments. “Downtown has already lost an indescribable number of its historic buildings for a lack of attention of the owners of those buildings to have an attitude of civic pride and historic pride—and the restoration of those buildings fall into that category.”

“Within the story of a city, you want to see the layers of history, the layers of development.”

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As he left the meeting, Manny Leto told CL not just about the environmental impact of demolishing structures (“the greenest building is a building that’s already been built”), but about community memory and character.

Leto is a 45-year-old born-and-raised Tampeño who worked at the Tampa Bay History Center for 13 years before taking over as Executive Director of Preserve The ‘Burg last summer. He pointed to how preservationists often end up on the right side of history. (Remember when the then-St. Petersburg Times wrote an editorial more or less saying the Vinoy was not worth saving?)

He extolled the economic benefits of preservation, but most poignantly talked about a sense of place.

“Within the story of a city, you want to see the layers of history, the layers of development,” Leto said, adding that he certainly doesn’t want a city in stasis or frozen in time. Instead, he wants to see periods of development in the course of a city’s history.

A short walk from Tampa City Hall are the old Tampa Bay Hotel (University of Tampa), Aloft Hotel, Oxford Exchange and the Franklin Exchange—all good examples of those layers and adaptive reuse.

“That gives a city a sense of identity and a sense of place. Those things you could argue are more ephemeral and harder to define,” Leto added.

He knows historic preservation departments are criminally underfunded and that you can’t save every building, but is adamant that the uniqueness of that layering is what makes other cities—be they Savannah, Charleston, Key West, Cedar Key or Chicago—stand out from the others.

In St. Petersburg, he’d like to see the Community Planning and Preservation Commission (CPPC) take initiatives to undertake surveys and studies of historic buildings like churches. Tampa could do it with its structures like cigar factories, schools and more. In his eyes, buildings that get studied are the ones that get attention and get funded. To Leto, developers and preservation entities would do well to work more closely in making sure preservation is possible and beneficial to an entire community.

Leto’s former TBHC colleague Kite-Powell also knows that some buildings must fall. “We’d be sitting in a forest right now or next to buildings made of wood,” he joked.

But to him, it’s also important to think of the people who used certain historic structures when considering their preservation.

Kite-Powell served on Tampa’s first-ever HPC and has been part of decisions that preserved the facades of entire blocks of downtown Tampa. He argued that certain historic preservation tax breaks and credits can help a developer make some of their money back.

But more than anything, he worries that we as a city might overlook the small pieces and neighborhoods that are part of the puzzle and fabric that make a community. There’s no going back when those puzzle pieces are gone.

“The picture’s gone, and now all you have left are pictures,” Kite-Powell said. But seeing pictures of Franklin Street and Seventh Avenue are not the same as actually walking down Franklin and Seventh.

“It’s a living city that has parts to it, some new and some old, but they all come together to make the city,” he explained. “But when you lose all the old parts, you’ve lost the old city, right?”

Not if preservation can help it.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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