Lawsuit filed over Ybor City tunnels as construction of new building threatens old one

Before construction can start, the tunnels had to be demolished and the land now must be stabilized — a process creating shock waves that may be damaging the 123-year-old Florida Brewery.
Published February 12
Updated February 12

TAMPA — Dale Swope says he spent more than $6 million to preserve the original architecture while converting the 123-year-old Florida Brewery on Fifth Avenue into office space for his law firm.

Sixteen years later, Swope says, construction of a modern structure on an adjacent lot threatens his historic building.

The new building lot sits atop water flowing from the historic Government Spring as well as an underground system of sewage tunnels from the 19th century that may have been repurposed for smuggling.

For construction to start, the tunnels had to be demolished, infill was then added, and the land now must be stabilized — a process that has been and will continue creating shock waves that are damaging Swope’s building, he says.

Mortar between bricks is crumbling, Swope said.

He has gone to court seeking an emergency injunction against the work.

"The construction of our building makes it very vulnerable,” he said. “Modern buildings are made out of concrete block. But we don't have concrete block to absorb the shock. We are just brick."

What’s more, the court filing states, “historic materials required to perform repairs are largely unavailable.”

The new building will house the headquarters for doormaker Masonite International. The property is owned by Ybor developer Darryl Shaw, whose Ybor Land LLC is the defendant in the court filing.

Shaw is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

“The owner of the property is performing construction activities utilizing conservative means and methods in order to ensure there is no damage to any nearby property,” said Andy Mayts, who is representing Shaw on this matter.

Historians now agree: Ybor City's tunnels were built as sewers, not smuggling routes

Swope says otherwise.

Earlier this month, infill was added to the land on which the new building will be constructed. That infill was then compacted with hydraulic machinery that shook his building, Swope said.

The tunnels were demolished but the ground under the new building remains shaky, Swope said. The spring, meantime, once Ybor City’s source of fresh water but capped for decades, has created an "underground river," Swope said.

Government Spring was a cradle of downtown development. But where is it?

“So they are driving stone columns into the ground to support the structure,” Swope said.

Beginning on Tuesday, holes drilled in the earth will be filled with stones that are then vibrated “to settle them into place,” Swope said, which will send further shockwaves into his brewery building.

"The defendant knows that the historical design and materials of the brewery building cannot sustain the assault," according to the court filing. Swope has repeatedly informed the developers of the "irreparable harm" being caused, the filing says.

Still, attorney Mayts said, the process takes place below ground and the vibration levels are being monitored to protect all neighbors.

Swope said that a safer way to build the columns would be to drill a hole and pour concrete into it. That process is more expensive, Swope said, but he is willing to help with the added cost.

"We are not trying to stop them from building their building," Swope said. "We are trying to save our building."

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Built in 1886 by Ybor City namesake Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the Florida Brewery supplied

Tampa with beer and shipped more of it to Cuba than any other American brewery.

In the 1960s, the opening of a local Anheuser-Busch plant and the Cuban embargo led to the brewery's decline. The building fell into disrepair until Swope restored it.

Shaw previously told the Tampa Bay Times that he was considering building a well on the Masonite property as homage to the Government Spring. He has also said he planned to keep a portion of a tunnel open and build a glass courtyard floor over the top of it.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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