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Davis Islands dream became reality 90 years ago

When David Paul Davis returned to Tampa in January 1924, after living in Miami, he arrived wealthier, more determined and eager to pursue a real estate project. Tampa developer Burks Hamner likely came up with the idea to dredge the small islands in Hillsborough Bay to create a new community, but it took Davis to put Hamner’s Bay island plan into motion.

A variety of obstacles faced him before this could be accomplished. Davis first needed to meet with the city’s leadership, both political and financial, to ensure the investment was a viable and legal proposition. Tampa’s mayor and city commission readily endorsed the plan, as did the Board of Trade, the city’s major business organization, and Peter O. Knight, the city’s most powerful and well-connected business and civic leader.

The next step centered on land acquisition, including a contract with the city that would authorize the sale of Little Grassy Island plus its share in Big Grassy Island, and allow Davis to fill in the submerged lands surrounding them. Negotiations between Davis, who was represented by Giddings Mabry from the prominent Tampa law firm Mabry, Reaves and Carlton, and the city were surprisingly public, with the Tampa Morning Tribune covering their progress on an almost daily basis.

The two parties quickly came to terms, with approval by the city commission the final hurdle.

Some public opposition did exist. A small but wealthy and influential group of residents who lived on or near Bayshore Boulevard objected to Davis’ plans because it would be detrimental to their view of Hillsborough Bay. Those residents, led by Louis A. Bize, who in addition to his medical practice also served as president of Citizens Bank and Trust, outlined their problems in a letter sent to Tampa city commissioners on Feb. 12, 1924.

The Bayshore residents’ view corridor was not the end of their problems with the Davis project. Their letter outlined six points of “protest” to the city commission. The first four stated that the city had no right under Florida law to sell the riparian (underwater) rights to Davis, or any other developer, for the purpose of filling in. The fifth point served as an appeal to the environmentalists on the commission (there were none), explaining that the development “would be a spoilation of a great portion of Hillsboro [sic] Bay, the greatest natural attraction in the vicinity of said city.”

They ended with a general attack on the contract itself, which Bize and his neighbors saw as “vague, uncertain, indefinite, and fails to provide limitations against additional encroachments upon the lands held in trust by the City of Tampa and the State of Florida.”

Though submitted by eight people, the neighborhood contingent kept their protest to one page. In contrast, Karl Whitaker, a powerful local lawyer and future city attorney, wrote a 12-page epistle, attacking the proposed contract point by point.

Whitaker began by explaining that he did not “care at this time to enter into a discussion as to the merits or demerits of the so called Davis Development Project.” Whitaker then outlined what he would like to see happen to Little Grassy Islands, a park similar to one in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

He continued to dissect the draft agreement. His comments ranged from the legalities and limits of the project, to the wording of certain parts of the contract, to the size and dimensions of planned city park space, and the small number of limitations placed on Davis and his development. Although the city did adopt some of Whitaker’s suggestions in this regard, such as the prohibition of “railroad terminals,” they did not include a covenant restricting “persons of African descent” from buying property within the Davis Islands neighborhood. The appearance of such a covenant would not have been unusual, as there were other developments in Tampa and around the country that included them, but it was not expressly detailed in the final contract.

While wrangling with the city and citizenship over his proposed contract and development, Davis also went about the task of purchasing the non-public portions of Big Grassy Island from the estates of the Brown, Henderson and Whitaker families. Davis and his attorney negotiated the purchase of the Brown and Henderson portion of Big Grassy Island for $100,000, or $1,433.69 an acre. He was not as fortunate in his dealing with the Whitaker Estate, of which Karl Whitaker was an important part. Davis finally purchased the 61⁄3 acres of Big Grassy Island for $50,000, or $7,936.50 an acre. Following the mantra of the times, if Whitaker could not stop progress, he would at least profit from it.

City commissioners signed the completed contract with Davis on Feb. 26, 1924. The contract, altered slightly through the efforts of both Bize and Whitaker, still heavily favored Davis. It began with the sale of the city’s rights to Little Grassy Island, its share of Big Grassy Island, and all of the surrounding submerged land for $200,000.

Restrictive covenants occupied the second section of the contract. Included among them were no “manufacturing plants, wholesale purposes shipyards; steam-railways or railway terminals, or commercial docks or wharves.” The city also forbade “buildings or structures” or “any fill ... west of the west boundary of said property.” No mention appears of any other boundary restrictions, one of Whitaker’s major issues. Although it remains unclear why the contract was written in this manner, Davis did not exceed any of the boundaries of the original sale.

The project was described in the contract as a “high-class residential subdivision,” which included a bridge to the development and parks within it. Both would be deeded to the city under the parameters of the contract.

The $200,000 Davis paid for the islands came as a surety bond, which would be returned to him in stages. The city would release $100,000 “if and when the said bridge shall be constructed and the seawall and fills herein provided for shall be fifty percent complete, the city may accept a deed to the said bridge and fifty-five (55) acres of parks.” Davis would receive the rest when “said seawalls and fills herein provided for shall be completed.”

City code stipulated that a contract of this scope must be ratified by the citizenship within 90 days, so a referendum was set for April 22. The voting public overwhelmingly approved the contract, with 1,313 voting for and 50 voting against.

A review of the details behind the $200,000 surety bond Davis placed with the city allows an interesting look into the 1920s Florida land boom. Davis did not use his own money, but instead had investors, including sitting Tampa City commissioners William A. Adams and William J. Barritt, purchase bonds of varying amounts totaling $225,281.25. A wide variety of people held these bonds, and the bonds themselves held a range of values. A total of 82 people, from business owners to window dressers, attorneys to teachers, real estate men to physicians, laid their money down, apparently convinced of the Davis project’s success. Investments, in the form of promissory notes, ranged from $1,875 to $5,000.

No consistent pattern exists connecting those investors, though they are possibly linked through the Board of Trade. Another probable connection is Peter O. Knight, who was an owner or investor in a number of the businesses represented in the tally of note-signers. Both city commissioners invested toward the end of the process, putting in their money after the required $200,000 mark had been met. Although there are records of money exchanges from 1924 to 1926, there is no evidence that any of these notes were returned or discontinued when the Davis contract was finally fulfilled in 1928.

A section of Davis’ contract with the city stipulated that he had the “right to acquire, at his own expense a judicial determination of the City’s right to grant to him the rights herein set forth.” His attorneys brought the issue through the court system to the State Supreme Court, which ruled on Sept. 9, 1924, that the city did have the right to sell not only land but also the submerged areas around that land. With that ruling in hand, Davis could begin selling lots on his new island, which he did starting the following month. Davis Islands was finally a reality.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He is also author of “History of Davis Islands: David P. Davis and the Story of a Landmark Tampa Neighborhood.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 228-0097.

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