Wrestling for the Armory

Redeveloping the West Tampa landmark just got tougher.

click to enlarge THE HOMER: Tampa's most famous armory will get a new life, but how much of it will be devoted to the arts or economic development? - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
THE HOMER: Tampa's most famous armory will get a new life, but how much of it will be devoted to the arts or economic development?

The Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory building is 78,000 square feet of cavernous white Art Deco military grandiosity in West Tampa. It is also one of the most promising economic redevelopment sites in all of Tampa Bay. Some creative industries types are drooling over it, and neighborhood advocates hope it will be a job-creating engine.

But now that the city of Tampa has announced requirements for the site — a "Request For Proposals" unveiled last week after long delays — it's painfully clear what the vast majority of the Florida National Guard property is likely to become.

More freakin' condos.

One government insider who is very familiar with the city's RFP privately called it "a circle jerk." This source was deeply disappointed, but not entirely surprised, by the RFP's development and financial requirements, which almost certainly can't be met by anyone beyond a large-scale condo or apartment complex builder.

Tucked inside the RFP, unreported by the daily newspapers or the weekly business press still cooing over the project, are some pretty stiff requirements. A redeveloper will have to pay the military $830,000 owed for improvements already done on the southern half of the site; purchase 6-8 acres to relocate the remaining National Guard functions (including a vehicle maintenance shed); and build at least $4.7 million worth of buildings at that new site. The Guard wants a turnkey project to replace its current digs, so it can close the doors in West Tampa on a Friday and open the new ones (wherever they end up) on the following Monday.

Those costs are minimums. The winning bidder will likely spend a great deal more, acknowledges the city's business and housing chief Cynthia Miller.


Will all the arts and creative industries folks who have that kind of jack step forward please?


"The way the RFP was written, it looks like it will be a large developer" who will win, said George Cornelius, owner of Tampa Digital Studios, which wants to do a $5 million revamp of the Armory to create a film soundstage, studios and offices. (He's been contacted by developers who want to partner with his studio, but he has not signed any deals.)

Where the RFP has left creatives in need of partners, smaller developers are scratching their heads about whether to spend as much as $300,000 or so to prepare a proposal.

One West Tampa developer who wanted to bid on the project expressed disappointment after getting a gander at the requirements last week. His problem wasn't the relocation cost; it was the issue of keeping the Armory preserved.

Spencer Kass, a partner in Landmarc Realty, said one idea he was working on would have razed the Armory and all other buildings on the site, and constructed a mixed-use residential and commercial project that would include four buildings with rent-free space for small, neighborhood-owned startups.

"We really wanted to see this as an anchor for community redevelopment in the area, bring new jobs in," he said. "We haven't decided what we're going to do yet."

Kass maintains that the city didn't mandate preservation of the Armory during the 2004 discussions. The RFP now requires it. (Miller disagreed with Kass, saying it was clear from the start that the city was committed to preserving the building.) That leaves only about five developable acres along Armenia Avenue, plus the cost of restoring the Armory and another building that must be saved, not to mention asbestos removal from the pre-World War II structures.

"It seems to escape some people that there is only so big a pot of money that any developer has," Kass said.

The idea of renovating the Armory first surfaced in late 2004. Nearly a dozen developers and arts groups expressed interest back then, proposing to turn it into everything from a supermarket to townhomes to museums to film studios to an ice rink. Then, for nearly a year and a half, nothing.

It turns out that the city, which has legal rights to the property if the military stops using it, was tied up negotiating with the Florida National Guard to expand the project to the entire Armory property. The site includes a maintenance garage, offices and warehouse space that would require relocation. The War on Terror slowed those talks, as many Florida National Guard officers involved kept getting cycled out to Iraq or Afghanistan. And Miller was candid in saying that both bureaucracies ground slowly.

The Armory has a storied history in Tampa. The land under it was where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders camped in June 1898 before shipping off to Cuba. The Armory itself was built with WPA money and opened on Dec. 6, 1941 (on the eve of that day of infamy). Elvis sang here. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here. President John F. Kennedy addressed Chamber of Commerce members here mere days before he was shot dead in Dealey Plaza. High schools held their proms here. Many wide-eyed kids watched professional wrestling in the hall.

A study done by the Florida National Guard deemed the Armory historically significant not only because of its past but because it is an "impressive example of Art Deco architectural style."

Miller said the city has always been committed to preserving the Armory and another 1940s-era red-brick structure on the site, now used as recruiting offices. At the same time, she hopes the redevelopment project provides new jobs and cultural amenities.

"We're looking for this whole redevelopment to be a catalyst," Miller said. "The key word is catalyst. We certainly hope there is a cultural component. Jobs are key, but having a good multi-use facility that can bring in the elements of culture" is also part of the deal.

Miller acknowledged the financial requirement to reimburse the Florida National Guard will force arts and cultural groups to partner with larger developers. But that is not a bad thing, she said.

"I think it is a fair assessment to say that partnerships will be key for an arts group to be involved in this," she said. "But that is not unusual in these kinds of deals. It takes those kinds of partnerships to get this kind of a project done anyway."

Tampa Digital's Cornelius doesn't disagree with the city's approach, saying the larger project will have a greater impact in West Tampa. (And our disclosure: The Planet has a marketing agreement with Tampa Digital.) But given the higher cost of that additional property, some who dream big dreams for West Tampa see a lost opportunity for a different kind of redevelopment, one that mixes cultural amenities, artist spaces and small-business incubators in an existing middle-class residential neighborhood. It would anchor the south end of a cultural district that would stretch to the former Centro Español building north of the interstate, currently being underused by the Urban League.

Right now, the Armory project is starting to look more like Hyde Park's SoHo district than West Tampa's funky ethnic and cultural brew. Let's hope at least one of the expected condo-driven proposals proves me wrong.

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