When Bill Duvall moved to Tampa almost 20 years ago, he and his wife thought it would take about six months to find a house. "My wife took a wrong turn one day and ended up in Seminole Heights," he recalled. "She said, Hey, I found our neighborhood."
They had been looking for two years.
"If you come down the highway and you see Nebraska and you see Florida, you still don't see Seminole Heights," he said.
Now Duvall is the president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association and he wants to make sure that his neighborhood retains the oak-draped, Southern-front-porch charm he saw when he first moved there.
Recently, that's meant scraping up against business interests.
When Walgreen Co. wanted to put a store at the corner of Florida and Sligh avenues, Duvall and the association kicked up dust until the plan was buried.
In Seminole Heights, there's a clearly defined commercial area, he said, and businesses are basically one lot deep.
He wants to keep it that way.
Seminole Heights seems to be in a state of flux. Once there were elderly residents living on fixed incomes, said Duvall. Now there are more young families and couples drawn to the 80- to 100-year-old housing stock.
The area is diverse and tolerant, according to Duvall. "It's no great secret that gays and lesbians are quite comfortable here," he said.
And so are the artists who left Ybor City when real estate speculators caused rents to skyrocket.
The area's historic designation means that the housing will pretty much retain its 1920s feel. Duvall doesn't want the commercial areas to take too much away from that.
The small car lots that used to dominate the area are slowly disappearing and Duvall couldn't be happier. They were ugly, he said, and it embarrasses him to have visitors drive through the grungy commercial area to get to his house.
Now there are three new restaurants, a clothing store and a day spa, in addition to a new Spanish grocery and an antique shop. Viva La Frida, a Mexican restaurant and gallery, sits on a former car lot and the owners have made it an asset to the neighborhood, said Duvall.
It's not the sort of place you'd expect to see in what is largely still a working-class neighborhood. Its cuisine includes artistic squiggles of sauce on the plate and prices that are not exactly competitive with a blue-plate special. But Duvall is glad to have it.
"I'm impressed because, for what you get, I think they're underpriced," said Duvall, comparing the restaurant with the fare along Hyde Park's South Howard Avenue. "For that quality food, you'd pay much more in SoHo."
Seminole Heights resident Jocelyn Myers runs Myers Printing Inc., also on Florida Avenue. As the president of the Seminole Heights Business Alliance, she's glad to see small businesses moving into the area but is disappointed about the rejection of Walgreens. "We really felt like it would help the neighborhood," Myers said.
It would have cleaned up the corner where a used car lot now sits and given senior citizens a drug store within walking distance, Myers said.
And it would have provided jobs.
"From what I understand, they (neighborhood association members) want those small little antique shops, but they're not anchors," said Myers. "When you look at the people who own them, they work regular jobs just to keep them open."
Soon the Riverview Terrace housing projects will be demolished and the neighborhood will experience more change as increased commercial and residential development takes place.
Myers would like to see some of the commercial development that takes the more plebian elements of the neighborhood into account.
She gives the Save-A-Lot store on Hillsborough Avenue as an example. The neighborhood association wasn't thrilled when the discount grocery chain decided to build a new store at its current location rather than move.
"They (the association) would say things like, "Nobody in this neighborhood shops there, they all throw trash out of their windows and they all speed,'" Myers said. "I shop there." Several of her neighbors do, too. Duvall claims that his group wasn't trying to prevent Save-A-Lot from staying in the area. The new $1.5-million store is still being built.
"Some people say we lost that," he explained. "That's a misunderstanding. We lost the traffic issue; we were not against the store."
The association wanted a median that would only allow traffic into the store from Hillsborough Avenue. Instead, the store agreed to make changes to the design that will decrease the flow of traffic. Save-A-Lot also will install devices like speed tables that slow down customers in their automobiles. Shopping carts will be equipped with a sensor that causes the wheels to lock if they leave the store's property.
The association and the business alliance are beginning to find ways to prevent the inevitable clashes, or at least to keep them to a minimum. But there will always be some tension there, said Duvall.
"By definition there has to be," he said. "Business looks after business and neighbors look after neighbors."
Contact Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or [email protected] weeklyplanet.com.