Tampa Heights residents stand up against I-275 expansion

Tampa Heights has developed into a vibrant neighborhood and a vital cog in the resuscitation of Tampa's urban core, but a highway expansion plan dating back to the mid '90s is forcing a clash between the area's past and present, creating a conflict that will define the future of the Heights and what the city will become.

This debate brought a full house to Tampa's City Hall on Thursday morning for the monthly meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), of which every member is also an elected official on the City Council. While there was massive opposition to the addition of tolled "Lexus lanes" along the city's major highways among those in attendance, residents of the neighborhoods most greatly affected by the expansion (Tampa Heights, Ybor City and Seminole Heights) were the most vocally opposed. By the end of the meeting it was clear that this was not a vent session, but a search for an ally in what is sure to be an uphill battle.

“I'm here because I want to make sure you understood the impetus of so many people being here to speak with you all, it's because we need your help,” said Leslie Paredes, President of The Heights Collective, as she addressed the CRA. “We are all working toward a future that very suddenly has seemed to escape us. Everyone here wants the same kind of city, I believe you guys do as well. We want a city that engages its residents with a variety of different experiences, having places like the community center for families and residents, having businesses that engage different parts of our population in a completely different way."

The proposed express lanes, she said, would make such ideals impossible.

"We're all trying to continue developing these things but at the same time we're losing an opportunity to do it because we're going to expand the expressway into even more of an eyesore than it already is, destroy businesses, destroy historic structures and effectively stunt all of the economic growth that our area has seen within the last five years," Paredes added. "What I'm here to do is to make sure you understand how important and how grave the threat is and to also ensure that you're here to help us, that you can talk to every person that you know in your constituency and at the state level and that you have our best interests at heart. Your best interest is in your city just as it's ours.”

If the expansion goes through, one of the earliest victims will be the new Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association Community Center, opening in a former church at the intersection of Palm and Lamar after five years and a million dollars spent rehabbing the property.

“The residents said they wanted a safe home for our children and a home for a civic association, an area where we could have community gardens and activities going on. This is what we have done. The community ourselves have gone out and worked on these,” said activist Lena Young Green, explaining the situation. “We did sign the lease with the FDOT for the historic building. We did not want to lose our building and we did not have an alternative. We had to sign something because for years we had been stumbling around, finding a place for a civic association to meet and finding a place for young people to make good choices in their lives. If you're drowning and you have a string hanging in front of you, you grab it and hope to work through it.”

Young Green also pointed out that the original agreement on the lease was made with the impression that this expansion would be made 20 to 30 years from now. Linda Saul-Sena explored this case in greater detail in the June 4 edition of Creative Loafing.

The CRA took the concerns seriously, passing motions to petition the FDOT for an advisory role in an upcoming re-evaluation of the project, where they will then raise the community's issues, and even moving to explore filing a Federal VI complaint, which would evaluate whether the project is disproportionately detrimental to the community. Still, it was clear that this project is bigger than the CRA and that it's going to take action on the county and state level for any of this to stop.

Despite all of this, it was clear that those who have taken part in the renaissance of Tampa Heights have no plans on giving up on the neighborhood.

“I'm under no illusion that I can stop what they're doing,” said Cheong Choi, owner of Cafe Hey. “However, having recently moved to Tampa Heights, I'm committed. I'm trying to develop the area into a place that I care about and someplace that I want to live. The question is, what kind of city do you want to live in, what kind of city do you want to build? Do we want a place where people can come in and out of and leave, or someplace where people like me and a lot of people like me are willing to stay?”

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