TAMPA — Joe Capitano Sr. invested in the 1400 block of E Seventh Avenue in 1985, never doubting the huge potential of the property for Ybor City.
But the deal to build a $52 million boutique hotel on the site didn’t start to come together until six years ago, when a couple of young newcomers to the historic district sat down with Capitano for cafe con leche at La Tropicana Cafe.
One was Casey Ellison, who had just moved his company, EWI Construction, to Ybor. Within days, he concluded that Tampa needed the kind of lifestyle hotel that EWI had built in Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. The 1400 block looked ideal. So he and a business partner, Alex Walter, reached out to one of Capitano’s sons. No luck. Called again. Same result.
"I knew that Joe Sr. had coffee every morning at the Tropicana, so Alex and I just started going in and started having coffee with Joe, telling him about our vision for this site," Ellison said. "Five or six coffees, and he was sold."
"There couldn’t be a better place for it to start," Ellison told several hundred people Thursday at the start of construction on the hotel, which could open in late 2019.
Plans for the project were unveiled in 2014, but the team would see a key change when it picked up the Aparium Hotel Group from Chicago as a co-developer and operator for the hotel.
About two years ago, Aparium CEO Mario Tricoci heard from mutual friends, Chicago banker Harrison Steans and his daughter, Jennifer Steans, who chaired USAmeriBank in the Tampa Bay area, that an Ybor City family wanted to talk to him about a project they had in mind, so could he take a meeting?
He planned for half an hour. But he ended up talking with the Capitanos for more than two and a half.
"This," Tricoci told his business partner later that day, "is why Aparium Hotel Group was created."
It wasn’t just the charm of Ybor City. It was Tampa’s business climate and hospitality market.
"Tampa’s enjoying a really good run right now," with a "younger, vibrant demographic moving into the urban core," Tricoci said, and the city’s hotel sector rebounded strongly after the recession. "Its rates and occupancies have fared very, very well over the last several years, better than most markets similar to it."
That said, Tricoci sees the opportunity for a high-end hotel that distills the essence of Ybor City, "a truly eclectic neighborhood that has tremendous flair and soul to it."
The hotel, which has not been named, will be four stories with 176 rooms. It also will incorporate an existing Mediterranean-style building at the corner of E Seventh Avenue and 15th Street that was for decades the home of the Las Novedades restaurant.
"We made a conscious decision to go back to kind of a mid-century Havana design ethic," said Carlos Alfonso, CEO of Alfonso Architects, which is designing the hotel. Las Novedades has wrought-iron balconies, windows topped with half-circles of stained glass and an entry set on an angle to the street.
"The old buildings are incorporated into the public spaces of the hotel," Alfonso said. "There won’t be a hotel like this in Tampa."
Like many of Ybor’s early buildings, the hotel will include balconies overlooking the street. The lobby and ground-floor restaurant will be designed as much for locals and walk-in traffic as guests.
"We want to pull people off the street," Tricoci said.
Over the past century, the block has seen a parade of colorful characters: Rough Riders, hit men, club kids and drag queens.
In 1898, horsemen from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry are said to have ridden their horses into the dining room at Las Novedades, an episode known as "the Charge of the Yellow Rice Brigade."
On the same block, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, was the El Dorado casino.
Patronized by Tampa’s underworld, along with the occasional judge or politician, the El Dorado was run by Charlie Wall, considered Tampa’s earliest crime boss, and Ralph Reina, who would go on to manage a Havana casino in the 1950s. It was a place where you could buy a bolita ticket, find a prostitute — or get shot.
In 1928, a man named Florentino Martinez stumbled to a nearby clinic, where he told deputies he had been shot at the El Dorado, gave the name of a man with whom he had feuded, and died. At the casino, gamblers said Martinez had not been inside and no one heard any shots. There never was a conviction.
On another occasion, George "Saturday’’ Zarate, was shot outside in his car by gunmen who reportedly meant to send a message to his employer, Charlie Wall.
The El Dorado building was demolished in 1973 and became a parking lot, but the Las Novedades building survived, going on to host a series of nightclubs: El Goya, Tracks, the Pleasuredome and Czar.
Along with the Capitanos, Aparium, Ellison, Walter, EWI and Alfonso Architects, the project team includes major Ybor City investor Darryl Shaw, the CEO of BluePearl Veterinary Partners, as well as the family of the late Alfonso Garcia Jr. and Batson-Cook Construction.
"We believe the team will deliver a product and experience that will complement Ybor’s rich history, become part of the district’s fabric and help showcase its charm, its character and heritage for generations to come," Joe Capitano Jr. said.
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times