What's Next For Downtown Tampa? Keep Your Eye On Historic Kress Building

At the Franklin Street level, the former splendor of the S.H. Kress building sometimes goes unseen amid obvious signs of abandonment and decay. A peek through its display windows and heavy bars tells a story of loss common in America's inner cities over the last 50 years.

But step back and look beyond what the eye can see. Envision how the Renaissance Revival design that served as a popular "five-and-dime'' department store from the 1920s well into the 1960s could once again become the hub for the city's busiest sidewalks filled with urban dwellers, commuters, shopaholics and foodies.

"It's a grand old dame," says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "The Kress is a building that ought to stir the imagination."

The architecturally significant building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, attracts almost daily calls from developers pitching ideas and suggesting investments in what the future could hold, says Kress Owner Jeanette Jason.

According to a large sign behind window glass on the old store's Florida Avenue entrance, the Kress building is zoned for two residential towers along with two book-ended properties in the same block -- the former J.J. Newberry and F.W. Woolworth department stores. One tower would be 24 stories with 105 units; the other 27 stories with 296 units. There would be a parking garage and nearly 85,000 square feet of retail space.

So there is plenty of room for creatives and innovators in the details.

Drawing On A Blank Slate

Jason envisions a resurgence for Kress that includes the possibility of mixing condos and apartments, funky as well as traditional offices, perhaps a boutique hotel, and potentially an eclectic public marketplace similar to the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, CA, or the historical Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco.

The Oxbow Public Market opened nearly seven years ago with 40,000 square feet of boutique and specialty shops selling local crafts, meats, seafoods, veggies, fruits, wine, coffee, cheeses and chocolates. A private partnership of smart local investors led by a forward-thinking local real estate developer owns the market with 24 vendors.

The Ferry Building Marketplace has a majestic history as a 19th century Beaux Arts style-structure where passengers stepped off ferries and trains into the bustle of San Francisco's Market Street at The Embarcadero. It re-opened more than a decade ago with about 165,000 square feet of retail on the first floor and another 175,000 square feet on the second and third floors for offices.

Similar Food Halls are emerging in historic urban buildings in downtowns across the country and around the globe.

The Kress is ripe for such development because it is in a prime location at the epicenter of Tampa's downtown. It's just a stone's throw from the Tampa Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River and the string of museums connecting the city's evolving arts and culture district. It's within an easy walk of the city's tallest office towers, City Hall, Hillsborough County's Government Center and the Sam Gibbons U.S. Courthouse. Its neighbors include dozens of unique and ethnic restaurants, Tampa Theatre, the Element, Skypoint and Rivergate Tower, home of the Tampa Bay WaVE incubator for a growing startup community. Not to mention that Tampa is the No. 1 transportation destination for tourists who come to visit entertainment spots from Orlando (Disney+) to Clearwater (beaches).

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

It takes little vision to see that opportunity abounds.

"We have looked into that type of concept and would love to see that here," says Jason. "Whether that would work here, I don't know."

Jason is a real estate broker who founded The Doran Jason Group of Tampa more than 20 years ago. Over the years the Group acquired several properties along Franklin, including the Kress. She and her father, Miami-based real estate broker and developer Doran Jason, are management partners in Kress Square LLC, which owns the properties.

"He's always loved the Kress," she says. "It was an easy sell to get him to go in with me."

Far above street level are coats of arms over suspended bronze marquees; and, in faint lettering at the brick building's peak, the name "Kress" remains.

Samuel H. Kress brought European grandeur to his chain of "five and dime" department stores. Tampa's store opened in the late 1920s and thrived for half a century before dwindling in popularity and eventually closing as suburban indoor malls took hold and inner city poverty and crime filled in behind, a fate not unlike the experiences of inner cities everywhere in the late 1960s through the '90s.

The last two decades have seen a re-emergence of downtowns as places to be with urban spaces taking on new life and attracting investors and developers keen on transforming downtowns and creating a sense of place within.

Buckhorn remembers Kress already shuttered when he moved to Tampa in the 1980s. He first set foot inside last year as he prepared to deliver his State of the City address. Buckhorn has made it a recurring theme to showcase the city's historical buildings in need of tender-loving care and an optimistic outlook.

Tampa's Time Is Now

This year's State of the City brought hundreds of city employees, business leaders and residents to the Armature Works building in Tampa Heights amid on-going construction next door of the Ulele Restaurant, the Riverwalk and Water Works Park.

A new life for Kress, the "old dame," is a priority for his administration. Nearby sit prime examples of  successful redevelopment and preservation in the Floridan Hotel and Le Meridien, a boutique hotel in the former Classic Federal Courthouse.

"This administration has been extremely helpful from a marketing perspective," Jason says. "They've brought people here to show it to interested prospective buyers. I think they are doing what they can."

The former W.T. Grant Department Store in the block immediately north of the Kress property also is owned by Kress Square and is available for redevelopment.

"We're in discussion with potential partners," says Jason. "We're not actually at the stage where we have a letter of intent. But I think these two blocks are pretty primed for development with what's going on around."

More hotels, high-rise towers, restaurants, museums, shops, offices and a growing population of residents are generating buzz and making the city's growing urban lifestyle.

Buckhorn sees the vacant storefronts on these two blocks as crucial to the city's master plan for revitalizing downtown.

"It would be huge," he says. "It is something I have been trying to push and cajole since I've been mayor. I think these two blocks, if we get them developed, would transform North Franklin."

The challenge is bridging the gap between expectations of owners and developers. "I would hope the owners would be realistic and not expect 1980-level returns," Buckhorn says. "And that developers would be willing to work with them and be fiscally reasonable."

Jason, a graduate of Florida State University with a degree in economics, says she is open to any idea. What she wants most is to reach an end to a quest that has so far eluded resolution.

"It'll be amazing to get something done," Jason says.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.