|By Kevin Wiatrowski, Tampa Tribune,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 07, 2012--TAMPA -- Not long from now, visitors to downtown Tampa will be dining under the same coffered oak ceiling where three decades ago cocaine kingpins met their fate in federal court.
Memphis-based Development Services Group took ownership recently of Tampa's retired federal courthouse, an imposing building that fills a block of North Florida Avenue between Zack and Twiggs streets.
Under a long-term ground lease with the city, the developer plans to reinvent the 106-year-old Beaux Arts-style building as a 130-room La Meridien hotel.
Under the deal, the city gets a flat rental fee and the building returns to the tax rolls. During the renovation, the rent is $1. It jumps to $10,000 a year for the 28 years after that and increases every few decades after that.
The deal also frees the city from the nearly $100,000 it spends every year to air-condition the empty building to keep the decay at bay, said Bob McDonaugh, the city's economic opportunity administrator.
The project should create more than 400 jobs during renovations and 100 permanent jobs after that, McDonough said.
The courthouse closed in 1997. During its time, it hosted the Kefauver Committee's hearings on organized crime in 1950, campaign speeches by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1960, the corruption trial and acquittal of then-U.S. Sen. Ed Gurney in the 1970s and the prosecution of drug money launderers at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1980s. It hosted a grand jury that indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges in 1988.
Before it was a courthouse, the building was a customs house and post office at a time when the Hillsborough River was a working waterfront. McDonaugh, who came to Tampa as a student in the 1970s, remembers when the building had a walk-up postal window on the Twiggs side.
All told, the land, which the city owns, is worth $1.9 million. The building is assessed at $423,000. Under the city's current tax rate, it will add $100,000 each year to the city's revenue as a hotel, McDonaugh said.
Historic-preservation tax credits are likely to keep the owner's tax bill at that level for the next decade. After that, the bill will rise based on the extent of the renovations.
Renovations began unofficially April 26, when developer Gary Prosterman toured the building with county fire inspectors. Modernizing the building will mean adding details such as fire sprinklers and removing asbestos, mold and water damage.
"There'll definitely be some unknowns when we start opening up the walls," Prosterman said.
The renovation will retain the building's most impressive features -- the marble and terrazzo lobby, and the oak door frames and window casings.
"The guests love that experience," Prosterman said.
And it's nearly impossible to replicate today, he noted. "The quality of older materials is better."
The rest of the building, from the shabby offices with modern drop ceilings to the holding cells on the ground floor, will be torn out to make way for hotel rooms.
"It's interesting how well it adapts," said Tampa architect Stephanie Ferrell, a historic-preservation specialist who has rejuvenated 1920s-era buildings on Franklin Street, including her own offices.
The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, so the $25 million renovation will have a host of federal, state and local hoops to navigate before it's finished.
That's nothing Prosterman and his team hasn't done before, however.
Prosterman's company turned a 1911 YMCA in Philadelphia into a 202-room La Meridien hotel in 2009. His architects and contractor have done historic renovations from Beverly Hills to Miami Beach.
The success of all those projects started with the quality of the building, Prosterman said.
"For every one that works, there's 40 or 50 that don't," he said.
The project is expected to be completed by 2014.
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