Josh Dohring remembers when the residential population in downtown Tampa was mostly made up of people who were forced to live there: the inmates of the Morgan Street Jail.
Much has changed since his family began brokering real estate in downtown more than 25 years ago. “We were here before downtown was hip,” said Dohring, who owns an office and retail building at 514 Franklin and another on Tampa Street one block over. “Tampa’s a little slower, but downtown as a concept is coming back,” he says. As his business slowly recovers from the Great Recession, his phone is finally ringing again. “If you look at where the development is happening, it’s in the core, not in the outlying areas.”
Over the last decade, Tampa’s notoriously sleepy downtown has witnessed a development boom. Condo and apartment buildings like Skypoint, Element and The Residences on Franklin, as well as public projects like the Tampa Museum of Art, Curtis Hixon Park and the Tampa Bay History Center, have reinvigorated the downtown core. Smaller-scale projects came on line as well. The Arlington Hotel and Fly Bar have injected life into the newly designated national historic district on North Franklin, while new commercial tenants fill storefronts along Twiggs Street.
Transit options are also expanding. The TECO Street Car is creeping north to Whiting Street, and a 120-mile-an-hour high-speed rail line is set to zoom into the north end of downtown in 2015.
But despite the accelerated pace of development over the last 10 years and the potential of rail to “re-center” the city, there’s a hole at the heart of downtown Tampa — Franklin Street. Large portions of this historic thoroughfare sit idle, and they’ve remained that way for decades.
The blight on central Franklin is not only sad; its persistence throws into question the progress that is finally being made in downtown as a whole.
Tampa’s Main Street
Franklin is a street full of firsts.
The city’s first electric lights lined Franklin by 1887. It was the first in the city to be paved, the first to have sidewalks. The city’s first brick building, the Bank of Tampa, was built on Franklin in 1886. In 1885, Tampa’s first streetcar, a steam-powered contraption with passenger cars similar to a freight train’s, rambled up a sand-covered Franklin on a narrow track to a nascent Ybor City. By 1900, electric streetcars traveled up and down the street on 21 miles of track connecting downtown to Ybor, West Tampa, Sulphur Springs and Ballast Point.
As Tampa boomed at the turn of the 20th century, Franklin’s status as the city’s commercial core was firmly in place. Tampa’s first Woolworth’s opened there in 1915; Maas Brothers, Tampa’s first department store, expanded to a six-story building on Franklin in 1921. The Tampa Theatre — the city’s first air-conditioned movie house — opened on Franklin in 1926.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, the prominence of the avenue had faded with the growing allure of wide-open suburban spaces. By 1963, the newly constructed interstate was whisking everyone away. As Tampa’s in-town population dwindled, retailers struggled: Maas Brothers closed in 1991; Woolworth’s hung on until 1992.
Since the 1970s, everyone, it seems, has had a plan to revitalize Franklin Street.
In 1973, then-mayor Dick Greco drove a pickaxe into the middle of the street, signaling the groundbreaking for a pedestrian mall. Twenty-eight years later, a re-elected Mayor Greco reopened the mall to vehicular traffic.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, development was focused almost exclusively on Franklin Street’s south end: the “Quad Block” (comprising the Hyatt Regency and Tampa City Center), the Ft. Brooke Parking Garage, the Tampa Convention Center all sprung up during this period.
Meanwhile, Franklin Street north of Kennedy sat idle. The inattention would prove disastrous. A 1991 study succinctly predicted, “Vacant buildings [along Franklin Street] have a high probability of remaining vacant…and will continue to age and risk being unsuitable for any use.” It was an apt assessment.
In 2006 the city condemned the Maas Bothers Building, which had anchored the corner of Franklin and Twiggs for more than 70 years. The downtown department store, vacant since 1991, was demolished. Over the years, the Maas Brothers had expanded haphazardly, acquiring adjoining structures along Franklin and Zack and absorbing the Strand Theater, a contemporary of the Tampa Theatre, in the 1930s. When Maas Brothers came down, the Strand and several other buildings on the block went down with it.
In March of 2007 a fire ripped through the 1926 Albany Hotel at 1100 North Franklin. The Albany had been vacant for decades. The fire leaped south, consuming another vacant building at Tyler and Franklin.
Stuck in park
In December 2009, Seven One Seven Parking Enterprises purchased the former Maas Brothers property for $2.7 million, 24 percent of what it sold for in 2006. The property will open this month as a surface-level parking lot, a far cry from the lofty 27-story condo tower originally slated for the site.