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Wrecking Ball Gets Closer To 1915 School

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May 15, 2004

Wrecking Ball Gets Closer To 1915 Junior High School


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TAMPA - If a plan isn't proposed soon to save the building, the bricks of George Washington Junior High will come tumbling down in July.

That reality has preservationists hoping they can reach a last-minute agreement to save the school that was built in 1915.

The Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the former school building at 707 E. Columbus Drive, said it will need the land for future expansion of the highway system.

Bids to do the demolition work will be accepted beginning Thursday, and a contract should be awarded by June 10. The demolition could start around July 12, said Elaine Illes, a DOT consultant.

The company hired will salvage 13,000 square feet of oak floors that will be used at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, 1005 Swann Ave. The middle school also will receive metal and wooden banisters from the junior high. HARTline will get a metal cupola from the school building for a bus stop at the University of Tampa, and 20 wood panel doors.

The DOT plans to build a 24- foot monument with a historic marker at the Washington school site. It will use bricks and a metal cupola from the school to build the monument, which will serve as a bus stop. Sod will be placed on the site of the old school.

Critics said the DOT is jumping the gun in demolishing the school because it doesn't know when the interstate will be expanded. It could be 15 years or longer, and by that time federal funding could change.

State Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, got involved because his district includes the school. His legislative assistant, John Rodriguez, said maintaining the building there keeps the history alive in the blue collar area.

If the DOT needs the property years after it's rehabilitated, by then a new location could be found to move it and money could be raised, Rodriguez said.

``There should be room for creative thinking and compromise,'' Rodriguez said.

Vivian Salaga, owner of Atelier Architecture of Tampa, wants the DOT to give the business that rehabilitates the building 15 years to recover its investment. Then they could move the building if the DOT needs the property for interstate expansion.

``I'm afraid I am one of those that still sees a ray of hope,'' Salaga said.

Illes said the DOT has never received a formal bid in the two years it has asked. There have been several organizations that have looked at the building, including the Salvation Army, but no one has made an offer to move or improve the building.

The DOT, Illes said, prefers the building be moved. Estimates have been from $3 million to $30 million to move it, Illes said.

The DOT doesn't support having an organization improve the building and keeping it on the property. Once the land is needed for interstate expansion, the DOT could face a lawsuit challenging its right to have the building moved, Illes said.

The DOT bought the 50,000- square-foot school in 2001 for $380,000 for future expansion of the Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 interchange. It was last used as a school in 1979. In 1998, the first floor was used for adult education.

Besides becoming dilapidated, the school has become a haven for homeless. The neighborhood wants it torn down to get rid of the homeless and the drug pushers, Illes said.

``It's a detriment to the community and a cost to taxpayers,'' Illes said. ``If the building comes down, you'll see an improvement in that community in a short amount of time.''

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