Tampa Council discuss historic preservation

07/31/08 Mitch E. Perry
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Eight days ago, the roof caved in on the historic Gary Adult School in the East Ybor section of Tampa. After an emergency code enforcement hearing two days later, the city and the building’s owner agreed to get separate engineers to report soon on whether the building can ultimately be stabilized.

The issue came before the Tampa City Council today, but members were told that because of pending litigation, they should be cautious on any public remarks about the issue.

Council members took the opportunity to decry why historic preservation hasn’t been taken seriously in the city of Tampa, and said the roof’s collapse is their warning call to now begin doing so.

Linda Saul-Sena has worked tirelessly over the past couple of decades on preserving some of Tampa’s historic buildings. She said she brought up the issue of the historic Gary school back with the former landlords of the structure back in 2003, the Hillsborough County School Board, who said they would act on the issue, but did not.

In 2005, the city declared the school, built in 1913, a historic landmark. The School Board then sold it shortly after to developer John Simon for $331,000.

City Councilman Thomas Scott expressed disgust with the fact that Saul-Sena wanted the building to be improve years ago, to no avail. And he asked City Attorney Chip Fletcher what could the city possibly to hold the School Board accountable?

Fletcher said he would ask his staff to look into it, but he thought the city’s legal options were limited. He said the city faced some challenges in keeping other historic buildings from falling into neglect -but said the primary way to maintain them is through code enforcement.

Fletcher also said the city could go to court to get injunctions on some of these facilities, but didn’t want to try to do that initially.

Despite the council members criticism of the School Board, the record shows that the city did not act swiftly on complaints about deteriorating conditions at the school. Code Enforcement officials say they requested repairs to the school’s roof back, windows and doors in May. That happened after developer Simon asked for a rezoning, to build a sports complex on the facility’s site.

Going forward, Saul-Sena said it’s time to educate the private sector about what to do with historic buildings.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern said Tampa needs to emulate other cities in making a commitment to historic preservation.

The Council voted to have city staff report within 60 days on how to improve their demolition-by-neglect provisions.

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