The bars next door

As the city explores new rules for nightclubs and bars, how goes SoHo?

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There was strong neighborhood opposition to the plan, to back up the ARC rejection. The developer appealed the decision to the City Council, which upheld the commission’s position. Citivest then sued the city and won. Ultimately the city paid out $3.75 million, the largest settlement in any land use case in the history of Tampa, after the developers argued it had lost millions because of the city’s actions.

City Councilman Mike Suarez says that the Council is frequently caught between the demands of developers and angry neighborhood residents. “Unfortunately, people come down to Tampa with pitchforks and torches and say you have to do this or we’re going to be really angry, we’re going to take it out on you.” Making decisions on special use permits, he says, is the most difficult thing that any councilmember has to do.

The council has had less autonomy the past two years regarding special use permits. Previously any such request had to come before them. An establishment requesting a permit was also subject to a 1,000-foot setback from similar businesses, homes, churches and schools.

But since 2011, the Council itself changed the rules fairly dramatically, with many of those requests now bypassing the members and going straight to the city’s zoning administrator.

One community activist who has been a constant thorn at City Hall over the years is Vicky Pollyea, the president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association. She says activists like herself are often described as trying to limit development and stunt job growth, but counters that the reason developers are forced to go in front of Council in the first place is that they’re requesting variances from the city code.

The section of Howard between Swann and Kennedy Boulevard sees the biggest increase in population on weekends, and now Pollyea has concerns about another addition to the scene: a proposed project by Irish 31 owner Jay Mize at the northeast corner of Azeele and Howard. That development includes an outdoor deck whose footprint is nearly double the size of the interior, and where the intention is to have amplified music performed in the evening. “They’re literally 75 feet away from single-family homes,” Pollyea warns.

SoHo Tavern owner Tony Friel also lives in the district. He thinks such complaints are overrated, saying the only complaints he hears about are from the “same three residents” who attend regular Council meetings.

Harry Cohen represents the SoHo area on City Council. He says he’s most concerned about the congestion, parking problems and the inability of residents in the area to simply get in and out of their homes. He says there probably should be fewer parking waivers for bar and restaurant owners, which allow them to reduce the amount of parking they provide.

“When you have a neighborhood like that where there’s clearly a great strain on the existing resources and on the existing neighborhoods, you’ve got to be very careful when you look at these waivers,” he says.

Since 2009, parking restrictions from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. have been enacted in the Courier City section of the area (between Swann and Kennedy, Armenia and South Packwood Avenue). Residents must obtain permits to park to preclude partygoers from jamming the streets adjoining Howard Avenue. Although each address gets an additional guest permit and can gain access to more from the city for a small charge, the policy does rule out any spontaneous gatherings.

SoHo Tavern’s Friel says that’s only exacerbated parking problems in the district. “Everybody is still coming to Howard,” he says. “They’re just walking another four blocks to park.”

Tampa Police Major Paul Driscoll says more patrons are taking cabs to South Howard, so many on weekend nights that there have been discussions about creating a cab stand to alleviate congestion.

Unlike Ybor City, there are no public parking garages in the area, though some neighborhood activists think it’s time for some of the businesses to buy unused land for that purpose.

Patrick Venable is a local attorney who pops into SoHo on occasion these days, but used to frequent the area more often about five to six years ago, when he says there was more of a solid core of young professionals from around 25 to 35 who filled the local bars. Admittedly older himself now at 34, he says there are more college students than ever in the area, and at times he feels it gives off a “Jersey Shore” vibe. He says he sympathizes with the neighbors on issues like parking and noise.

Councilwoman Yolie Capin says she thinks the area is at the point of “oversaturation,” and predicts the council won’t be offering too many parking waivers in the immediate future. Some of her colleagues say problems also exist in enforcing whether an establishment is actually selling more food than alcohol.

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