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A Night At Courthouse Might Not Be So Bad

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TAMPA - The scene of courtroom battles for decades, the Renaissance Revival federal courthouse in downtown is about to get a second life.

A half-dozen groups are competing to redevelop the 1905 courthouse, with proposals including making it a charter school or a hotel. The plans cost from $1.5 million to $12.5 million.

The six project proposals submitted last month will be reviewed and ranked by a nine-member volunteer committee at 2 p.m. today in the city council chambers at city hall, 315 Kennedy Blvd.

The committee expects to make a recommendation to the city council in the fall.

The proposed uses are charter schools, a Greek culture center, apartments, an artists' center, and a hotel, shops and restaurant.

``We're real pleased with this new diversity,'' said Mark Huey, the city's economic development administrator. ``We have three for-profits and three not-for-profits.''

After the city received only two redevelopment proposals for the building last year, Huey extended a grander invitation this spring that included a tour of the ornate courthouse.

The city took over the building at 611 N. Florida Ave. last year after U.S. District Court moved into a modern high- rise a block away.

Huey said the city hopes a restored courthouse will be a catalyst for other development in a downtown section marked by boarded up windows and vacant storefronts.

From Simple To Grand

The six proposals are:

* The City Initiative: A nonprofit group of artists and professionals called Tampa Bay Verve wants to create workshop space for theater groups, artists and nonprofit groups. With a budget of $1.5 million, Verve doesn't plan major restoration of the building.

* The American Foundation for Greek Language and Culture: A $9.1 million nonprofit classics headquarters would relocate from Temple Terrace and would include a library, an archive for rare books and manuscripts, plus a museum.

* Pradip C. Patel: Two charter schools and a photography museum are in a $10 million nonprofit plan from a team headed by Patel, a managed health care executive.

* Vintage I Partnership: Malio Iavarone, owner of Malio's Steakhouse, has a development team to turn the courthouse into a deluxe hotel with 52 rooms, a spa, and banquet and meeting space. The Old Courthouse Hotel would have large rooms, at 450 square feet each, plus a ``high tea'' room, a five-star restaurant and cigar bar. The project would cost about $10 million. Iavarone, the 36-year owner of Malio's, said his group of private investors will finance the hotel.

* Classic Development Group: Recognized in the Tampa Bay area for numerous historic restorations, architects Stephanie Ferrell, Leigh Wilson and Martha Sherman are teaming with developers Russell Versaggi and Hamilton Jones. They propose a mixed- use building to include 36 loft apartments. The team plans to invest $3 million, plus seek a construction loan for $7.9 million.

* TBR Management Group: The group proposes a two-story, 40-room hotel with a technology center and exhibit space. It includes a restaurant, museum and kitchen where chefs could train. The University of South Florida's College of Visual and Performing Arts expressed interest in using space for a theater, studio and museum as part of TBR's project. The project cost is about $12.5 million, including a $9.3 million loan and $3.1 million federal grant.

Iavarone said he was inspired to transform the old federal courthouse into a hotel by his daughter, who lives in a renovated federal building in Pasadena, Calif.

``It's happening all over the country. Downtowns are hot,'' he said.

Real estate broker William Bissett Jr., chairman of the old federal courthouse committee, said a group's financial status will be important.

``The city is in no position to take on a debt load. So we'll be careful about looking at these financial plans along with how the historic nature of the building will be kept up,'' Bissett said.

Museum Isn't In The Running

Still, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura is leery about all six plans. He would prefer to see the Tampa Bay History Center go there.

The history center plans to move from the Tampa Convention Center into a new $20 million waterfront building near the Channel District.

``Why not just relocate the museum into half of the space at the federal courthouse and lease the rest?'' Chillura said. ``It's a natural setting for Tampa's history.''

Chillura said he is most concerned about the upkeep of the 109,171-square-foot structure with its elegant fixtures, granite basement and marble first floor.

``Grant money is available for long-term maintenance. But no one in government will say why they don't consider this plan,'' Chillura said. ``Instead, taxpayers are not only going to have to support one of these six developers' plans, but also provide money for the history center's new site.''

Ann Avery, a Tampa resident who worked at the courthouse in the 1950s and 1960s during a 31-year U.S. Customs career, agrees with Chillura's history center proposal.

``It would be a horror to make this beautiful landmark into apartments, schools and businesses,'' she said.

Avery sees the former courthouse as a ``monument of dignity.''

But Del Acosta, the city's historic preservation manager, said the history center has decided to go elsewhere.

History Center President Rob Blount said the courthouse would have to be gutted to make room for the galleries the center needs.

``Orange County located its history center in a courthouse a few years ago and it ended up costing $60 million,'' he said. ``New construction is cheaper than reconstruction.''

Rankings Will Be Computerized

Acosta said the courthouse committee had hoped for proposals from across the United States, but is satisfied with five from Hillsborough County and TBR of St. Pete Beach.

``I think we have enough for a good decision,'' he said.

The rankings will be based on a 100-point scale from the committee members. The results will be computerized, with the city at this point remaining neutral, Acosta said.

``It's a competition,'' Huey said. But, he added, one proposal could be so superior that the committee would decide to present it to city council before the fall.

``I want this done yesterday,'' Huey said.

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My ranking:

History Museum.

Charter School (tampa will need them when people start moving downtown).

Greek and Classic centers.

Arts Center.



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I like the City Initiative and the charter schools proposals, although I agree that this would've been perfect for the History Museum.

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