The Western Front

Is it time for West Tampa?

click to enlarge COMFORTABLE: Cultural advocate Maura Barrios points to West Tampa's comfort factor and longtime residents' propensity for self-reliance. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
COMFORTABLE: Cultural advocate Maura Barrios points to West Tampa's comfort factor and longtime residents' propensity for self-reliance.

The mural is well-known to everyone in West Tampa, even if it is mostly obscured by trees that have grown up in front of it at Main Street and Howard Avenue. It reads, "It's Time For West Tampa."

Residents recall, with more than a touch of irony, that it was painted in the 1980s. The hopes and dreams for a turnaround in West Tampa have languished that long.

West Tampa, however, may finally be getting its moment. Other historic neighborhoods — Hyde Park, Seminole Heights, St. Pete's Roser Park — have drawn the attention of investors, developers and preservationists for decades, but only recently has West Tampa found itself under a truly promising spotlight.

That's a mixed blessing for this "city" of nearly 27,000 Cuban descendants, African-Americans, Mexicans, Anglos, Columbians, Guatemalans and others spread along both sides of Interstate 275 from downtown Tampa to Westshore.

On the one hand, the lack of investor pressure to redevelop this proud and culturally important area has meant that residents were able to stay put — instead of seeing their properties snapped up to make room for suburban-style $800,000 manses. But those who did remain saw West Tampa decline into high crime rates, stifling poverty, unemployment and urban decay.

The most recent attempt to prove the mural right can be found on Albany Street a few blocks north of the interstate, one of the extra-wide residential streets that criss-cross West Tampa. Construction workers are putting the last touches on three new homes that could change the neighborhood forever. A carpenter nails a vinyl soffit into a porch ceiling that looks just like the wood slats found in homes 100 years older.

The three homes sit on lots no wider than 33 feet. One bungalow is just 18 feet wide, in the traditional "shotgun" configuration — meaning that a load of buckshot fired through the front door could fly out the back door unimpeded. It is an architecture that is familiar to Tampa, both in this neighborhood and in Ybor City, among others.

Familiar, that is, at the turn of the 19th century.

The three are the models for InTown Homes, opening to the public on Friday. They are the brainchild of former Hillsborough County Commissioner, unsuccessful Olympics bidder, failed Civitas partner and all-around dreamer Ed Turanchik.

He has plans to build more than 75 new homes — historically accurate and affordable — in West Tampa. It is more than a development project, he concedes:

"It is part social engineering."

Nowhere else in Tampa Bay, and perhaps in Florida, is there a better chance to create a modern urban neighborhood than here in West Tampa. To create a highly dense, affordable, working-class, transit-ready city within a city. To create a model for how this state can turn its growth inward to its urban cores rather than sprawling across virgin scrub-palmetto fields and former citrus groves.

"It's basically city building," said Jason Busto, a fifth-generation Tampeño who is chief operating officer of his family-owned West Tampa plumbing company. "We're building a city in a place that used to be a city. It was one of the most urban cities in the South, and West Tampa will shine again."

Busto envisions a truly urban neighborhood, with 3- to 4-story buildings lining Howard and Armenia avenues north of Kennedy, storefronts down below and apartments above. He points to a photo he took in Barcelona as a model for what West Tampa could become.

Some in West Tampa share such a vision, while that kind of urban transformation scares others who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

click to enlarge BUILDING IN TOWN: Ed Turanchik and Teresa Caddick's InTown Homes seeks to sell new affordable houses and do a little social engineering along the way. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
BUILDING IN TOWN: Ed Turanchik and Teresa Caddick's InTown Homes seeks to sell new affordable houses and do a little social engineering along the way.

"We do not want to see another Hyde Park," said Ruth McNair, who is president of the civic association in West Riverfront, a middle-class African-American neighborhood between the Hillsborough River and Rome Avenue south of the interstate. "That is in big capital letters."

McNair is especially critical of a plan by developer Ken Morin to build a 9-acre $100 million complex of apartments, condos, offices and retail shops at Cass Street and Rome Avenue in an aging industrial section of West Tampa. The project is just the kind of thing that Busto wants, designed with a cigar-factory feel to its architecture, supplying new housing for nearby University of Tampa students and professionals who want to live five minutes from downtown, replacing rundown and vacant industrial buildings. It has the support of county planners as well, who point to their goal of an urban village in that area.

But for McNair, the project is deficient because (unlike Turanchik's project) it doesn't set aside homes that would be affordable to lower-income buyers. And it could bring more pressure to rebuild her neighborhood, where homeowners already get an offer or two a week for their houses from real estate agents and investors. According to the West Tampa Community Development Corp., property values are rising faster than at any time in the past 50 years.

"We do not want to be run out of our neighborhood," she said. "I don't have a for sale sign on my property. I don't know why they keep on asking us to sell our property. Where are we going? We don't have no place to go.

"We're here. We've been here," she said. "Therefore, these investors that are coming in have to dance a little bit to our music."

That attitude frustrates some in West Tampa, developers and urban visionaries alike. But it's not as frustrating as the remarkable amount of regulatory hoops they have to jump through to build something new or start a business. The city allows for the opportunity for change in West Tampa, on one hand, while putting numerous obstacles in its path — for instance, giving unusually strong oversight authority to neighborhood residents through what is called an "overlay" district that calls for tough design and construction standards. An informal Overlay Committee of those residents meets to discuss new projects, and its clout with Tampa City Council is strong, if not specifically grounded in law.

Critics of the city and Mayor Pam Iorio say the bureaucracy that has been created for West Tampa is such that only the biggest and best-financed projects can occur, and even those are delayed for months or years by the hoop-jumping process. Those critics only speak on background, however, for fear that their project will be sidelined because of their comments. They say it would take a grander vision on Iorio's part and some serious streamlining of red tape to take advantage of West Tampa's full opportunities as an urban model.

Others, like Turanchik, say Iorio has been very supportive of growth in West Tampa. She meets monthly with the West Tampa Community Development Corp., which is widely credited with bringing the many diverse interests in West Tampa to the same table to discuss change. And it was Iorio who then asked the Planning Commission to get involved in helping shape an economic future for the neighborhood, a process that has brought together dozens of residents and business owners in West Tampa to provide solutions for zoning, business development, transportation and culture.

click to enlarge PIONEERING: Jerel McCants stands in the doorway of the InTown Homes model that he is buying, the first customer for the innovative project. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
PIONEERING: Jerel McCants stands in the doorway of the InTown Homes model that he is buying, the first customer for the innovative project.

This isn't the first time Turanchik has laid out ambitious plans for a city neighborhood; he famously failed with the Civitas project, which was intended to transform downtown's public housing projects through the "new urbanism." He's now narrowed his scope to a few blocks in West Tampa. One-third of its properties are vacant, and another third are owned by landlords, many of whom don't keep their houses up to snuff. With his partner Teresa Caddick, he formed InTown Homes.

With financing from two credit unions, GTE and Suncoast Schools, InTown began to assemble vacant lots. It got 23 of them from the city for $312,000. Turanchik worked for a year and a half to rezone 67 lots in West Tampa to allow for construction.

His biggest obstacle was Tampa's antiquated zoning laws, which were designed for suburban construction, not urban challenges. He wanted the city to allow him to recreate the neighborhood exactly as it was in 1931. Just a week before his project launches, Turanchik unrolls a plat map from that year for a visitor to his office, showing how densely packed the neighborhood was, as much as 13 units per acre — the same density as exists on Harbour Island in downtown Tampa. He convinced city officials that the historic patterns of growth were better than the current suburban-oriented rules. That means no garages in the front of homes, closer construction to lot lines, mandatory front porches, and houses set nearer to the sidewalk.

The three houses he will build — each represented by the models opening Friday — range between $164,000 and $239,000 and are designed to blend in with the neighborhood's other historic homes.

But this is not your normal new home sales operation.

click to enlarge BEFORE & AFTER? Howard Avenue north of Main as it looks today... - Courtesy Of Jason Busto
Courtesy Of Jason Busto
BEFORE & AFTER? Howard Avenue north of Main as it looks today...

Turanchik will not sell to investors or speculators. The homes are one to a customer. He won't give real estate brokers commissions (to keep the prices down). By contract, new homeowners must live in the houses for at least three years because Turanchik wants "stakeholders" in the success of West Tampa and not transient homeowners. And most remarkably, a buyer's income has to fall below certain levels to qualify, ensuring that West Tampa's working-class atmosphere is maintained. You can't make more than $43,000 if you want to buy his 1,405-square-foot "Bungalow" model.

InTown has approval for 67 new homes, and will likely seek another 25 or more soon. Turanchik said the project is on a large scale because it will take "critical mass" to turn West Tampa's cycle of poverty and neglect around.

His plan has its detractors. Some in the neighborhood have publicly worried that Turanchik's success will eventually drive out older residents. They point out that the median income in the neighborhood today is about $30,000, too low to purchase even InTown's affordable houses. They point to real estate agents swarming the other property owners with offers of twice the going rate for their houses. Turanchik also has his supporters; Lillie Howard, active in the Old West Tampa neighborhood's crime watch program, publicly advocated that Turanchik buy more homes in the area, targeting drug traffickers' properties.

And looking beyond West Tampa, InTown is a model that could change growth management.

"Hillsborough County is fundamentally on an unsustainable growth pattern, and the congestion on our roads is a testament to that," Turanchik said. "West Tampa has the ability to accommodate some of that growth."

As proof, he points to his first home-buyer: Jerel McCants, an architect only a few years out of the University of South Florida who, before he found InTown Homes, had discovered that the only place he could afford to buy a house was in Pasco County. "There's pretty much nothing under 200 [thousand dollars], even out in Pasco County," said the 32-year-old McCants. "I thought it was a pretty good opportunity."

The history of West Tampa is unfamiliar to many in Tampa Bay, who either know it as a Hispanic neighborhood or see its worst blight from the interstate off-ramp at Howard-Armenia. It was a company town, founded in 1894 around dozens of cigar factories, some of which are still around today. It offered cheap housing for workers, some of whom moved out from Ybor City, Cubans, Italians and African-Americans chief among them. It had its own cultural institutions for music, opera and theater (the long-gone Cèspesdes Hall was packing them in at the turn of the century) and societies to provide medical and other assistance. One key social club was the Centro Español de West Tampa, which is still standing today (though it's woefully underutilized by its owner, the Urban League).

West Tampa developed a rich and unique culture, and by 1910 it was Florida's fifth-largest city, according to Maura Barrios, a third-generation West Tampeña who is chronicling West Tampa in a historical, artistic and cultural project called "Our West Side Story: Voces de West Tampa."

"It's not just about nostalgia," Barrios said. "It's about the people, the social fabric that was created." It is this spirit from the days of the cigar workers, their radical politics and their labor union struggles, that continues to permeate West Tampa, making it highly resistant to change.

That spirit of independence may have cost it love, attention and money over the years. West Tampa was involuntarily annexed into Tampa in 1925; gutted economically in the 1960s when the cigar factories closed; and split in two by the interstate construction of the 1970s. It fell into decline.

One thing hasn't changed in 100 years: The area remains a draw for immigrants, with a burgeoning Mexican population and newcomers from Latin America aggressively opening small businesses along Columbus Boulevard, famed as "Boliche Boulevard" for its myriad Cuban restaurants serving the pot roast-stuffed-with-chorizo specialty.

West Tampa runs on its unique cuisines, especially the caffeine-rich café con leche. The coffee and the neighborhood are the lifeblood of Hispanic politics, with lively campaigning going on in cafes like the West Tampa Sandwich Shop or La Ideal. Two Tampa City Council members call West Tampa home, as many as the influential South Tampa has. The population is 42-percent Hispanic and 35-percent African-American.

"I have a theory that it attracts people because it is a comfortable place to be," Barrios said.

It's an especially comfortable place for artists, who find the cheap homes and funky loft spaces suitable for studios, and West Tampa's rich culture ideal fodder for creativity. Henry Gonzalez III, a banker and homebuilder in the neighborhood, talked more about the arts than his own Noho Homes on a recent tour of West Tampa. "If the artists get in now, they can control it," he said. Already, one cigar factory, the former Santaella on Armenia, has been converted to studio spaces for photographers and other artists. (It's hosting an art exhibit on Friday, March 24, from 6-10 p.m.) Arts advocates are preparing to form a nonprofit corporation to advance their cause. And two other projects could add to the arts mix: The possible conversion of the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue, which one potential bidder, George Cornelius of Tampa Digital Studios, wants to turn to a film studio; and the possibility that the financially troubled Urban League will have to put the Centro Español, and its magnificent but unrestored theater, back on the market. (An Urban League official did not return a phone call from the Planet seeking comment.)

click to enlarge GOLDEN TOUCH: Barbara Baker surrounded by her "family," construction workers who have spent the past year restoring the 1907 Gold Nugget building for her. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
GOLDEN TOUCH: Barbara Baker surrounded by her "family," construction workers who have spent the past year restoring the 1907 Gold Nugget building for her.

The Armory project, however, has been delayed for almost a year and a half due to protracted negotiations between the city and the National Guard, which uses the facility.

Economic development is another challenge. The area generates few jobs, and as a result, its poverty rate (24 percent) is higher than the citywide average and its median income ($30,000) is lower. The neighborhood has a nonprofit agency that aims to protect the neighborhood while improving its economy. "We want to give residents the opportunity to start their own businesses," said Michael Randolph, executive director of the West Tampa Community Development Corp., criticized by some as just another layer of bureaucracy but still recognized by most as the galvanizing force for change over the past five years.

Starting a business in West Tampa isn't easy. There is a maze of organizations and groups involved in the planning and approval process (the CDC, the overlay committee, city zoning officials, to name a few). The rules are complex and myriad. But parking is the biggest problem; design guidelines almost mandate that you buy a second lot next door to your business to accommodate cars, adding to a new business' startup costs.

Then there is the lack of available retail properties; according to West Tampa Chamber of Commerce President Rick Caldevilla, there are no such properties for sale along the popular Howard and Armenia avenues.

South of the interstate, new businesses are moving in rapidly. Attorney Dario Diaz's new building is among the more prominent of a handful of new law offices. Strictly Entertainment talent agents moved to Armenia in the past few years. The Weekly Planet relocated its offices from Ybor City to Lemon Street, just a block from the Armory. Its owners certainly have a vested interest in the overall growth of West Tampa.

North of the interstate, starting a business remains tougher. Those who do find land and enough parking end up caught in lots of red tape.

Just ask Barbara Baker.

Baker, who converted an old cigar factory into office space with her own money 18 years ago, is betting $1 million that she can turn Howard Avenue's 100-year-old Gold Nugget building — most recently a bar, drug-dealing destination and brothel — into an old-fashioned general store, Victorian parlor and loft offices.

On a sunny and cool Wednesday morning, she meets with her construction crew, who have been on the job for a year and who have become like family to her. She chose to redevelop the 1907 boarding house up to historic standards, even though West Tampa is not covered by preservation laws. (It is a National Historic District, which provides tax breaks but not preservation protection, see sidebar story on the dispute over protecting cigar factories.) As a result, she's spending $250,000 more than if she had not made it historically accurate, and she's opening this fall more than a year after she'd planned to.

"I believe in West Tampa," Baker said. "This corridor here could very quickly come back to life."

Standing outside her new building, with her life savings on the line, Baker riffs on the spot's old name, Gold Nugget, and said, "Out of the dust comes gold."

Perhaps because of the area's history of self-reliance, much of the progress in West Tampa is driven by the residents themselves. Galvanized by solid planning and economic research done by the Planning Commission and the zeal of project director Jim Hosler, the West Tampa "volunteers" are an informal group of advocates who meet in four different committees to resolve problems. The land use committee is working to close a loophole in the overlay design standards that has allowed some non-preservation-minded homebuilders to put suburban-style garages in the front of homes instead of off the alley in the rear. The volunteers' transit committee has come up with a design for counter-circulating bus routes that would put transit within five blocks of every home in West Tampa and that has attracted the attention of HARTline. Others worry about the impact of having so many storefront churches, which makes it impossible to open restaurants nearby that want to serve wine, beer and liquor because of zoning that prohibits such sales near religious buildings.

The flexibility and informality of the committees makes sense because many of West Tampa's problems are inter-related. Many lower-income homebuyers need the city's help to qualify for $50,000 in down payment assistance. But if they are making car payments, they often exceed debt ratios for that program. If they can ride the bus and get rid of their car, they can buy a home. And with fewer cars in the neighborhood, more homes and businesses can be built.

West Tampa is benefiting from lessons that other historic neighborhoods learned in redeveloping before them.

"Perhaps it is fortunate that West Tampa is the last urban historical neighborhood to be discovered," Maura Barrios said. A century ago, West Tampa had working-class homes, within walking distance of jobs, with vibrant arts and culture, cafes and bars. "They had it right then, and it seems to be what we need today."

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