Empty Spaces

Tampa's downtown is full of vacant buildings. Arts groups need homes. Why can't they hook up?

click to enlarge A RETAIL TALE: Former gallery owner Ellen Brown now runs a rare books store downtown. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
A RETAIL TALE: Former gallery owner Ellen Brown now runs a rare books store downtown.

It seems a match made in heaven.

Tampa's post-5 p.m. downtown streets look devoid of life, like a scene out of the post-apocalyptic Omega Man.

Artists are just dying for space to paint, rehearse plays, sell sculptures or create something, anything.

Empty buildings. Hungry artists. A city whose downtown needs an injection of life.

But matchmaking, it turns out, can be a tricky business.

Take N. Franklin Street, a winding brick-lined stretch through downtown that used to be Tampa's main shopping district from 1920 to the 1940s, the kind of place where, in those old black-and-white pictures you find at the historical society, Ford Model T's lined up to park in front of department stores.

Today, the northern end of Franklin Street is a collection of mostly vacant, often rundown buildings. Artists would love to get their hands on them, but the building owners, for the most part, have shown little interest in leasing at cut-rate, arts-friendly rents. That, in turn, has kept North Franklin, long envisioned as a culturally friendly entertainment district, a ghost town.

Unlike St. Petersburg across the bay, where new galleries and cool restaurants line Central Avenue downtown and make for lively nights and weekends, downtown Tampa has had no such renaissance. The zoning here allows for skyscrapers, and many properties stay moribund while their owners calculate how to cash out with multimillion-dollar construction plans. In St. Pete, without carte blanche to build towers at will, landowners downtown were forced to do something, while Tampa's building owners bide their time.

"They can afford to sit on these buildings," said Jeff Whipple, a visual artist and playwright in Tampa. "They don't see a benefit to having a cultural scene. They're not cultural people."

Art fills empty spaces — not only figuratively but literally.

It is artists and media production companies, for instance, who revived Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, which has regained its place as that city's chi-chi shopping district. Lincoln Road fell on hard times starting in the 1950s; government attempts to re-create its lure over the next three decades failed. In 1984, a group of artists saw promise in the blighted and vacant area and worked with a federal grant and city leaders to create affordable workspace in 21 storefronts on Lincoln Road. Today, the area flourishes, with trendy restaurants and shops drawn back to Lincoln Road by the energy and creativity of the arts district.

In Tampa, any one of three districts could have been — should have been, some argue — just like Lincoln Road.

Ybor City had a burgeoning arts scene, with affordable studio and gallery spaces — until rents took off over the last decade and drove artists out, fueled by the construction of Centro Ybor and former Mayor Dick Greco's vision of the Latin Quarter as the next Bourbon Street.

The Channel District's vacant warehouses served as great sites for studio and performing space — until the condo construction craze of the past five years swept them aside.

And then there was North Franklin.

It seemed ideal — a district close to existing large facilities like the museum and the performing arts center, and graced by a national treasure, the Tampa Theater. But its buildings were old, many of them vacant for decades. Its rents were neither low enough to attract arts tenants, nor its buildings interesting enough to be home to trendy restaurants.

Now, with high-rises planned along a good stretch of North Franklin, wiping out potentially arts-friendly buildings, the street's future as an arts district looks bleak.

"I had envisioned smaller-scale buildings" for Franklin Street, said Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena. "I envisioned existing low-rise building stock would be rehabbed."

So far, that has not happened.

"It's always been frustrating to me to see the coolest areas of this city sit empty," said Whipple, who recently was forced to move out of the Channel District. "Tampa has many times more things going on [than St. Pete], but you have to drive 15 miles to see them all. You can't go to this one place and have all this energy going on."

So, last year, Whipple tried to do something about it. With the assistance of Paul Wilborn, Tampa's creative industries manager, he pitched an idea to Jeannette Jason. Her company, led by well-known Miami developer Doran Jason, controls several key blocks on North Franklin Street. (Doran, ironically, played a key role in the revitalization of Lincoln Road in Miami.)

One of the empty Jason buildings had plenty of space for an arts colony with a gallery, studio space and possibly a small theater. Whipple talked with seven or eight visual and performing arts groups and got their interest. He spoke with Jeannette Jason about it on several occasions. The key for the artists, however, was low — or no — rent.

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