Transforming Tampa Bay: Their way or the highway? Tampa Heights faces an intrusive freeway expansion

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click to enlarge The Tampa Heights garden and community center is endangered by FDOT’s proposed widening of I-275 to accommodate so-called “Lexus Lanes.” - chip weiner
chip weiner
The Tampa Heights garden and community center is endangered by FDOT’s proposed widening of I-275 to accommodate so-called “Lexus Lanes.”

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a cosmic referee for cities? An urban Athena for neighborhoods who would look down at the struggles of mere mortals and hurl lightning bolts to mete out justice?

Well, Tampa Heights needs one now.

For over a decade this underserved but strategically located community, just north of Tampa’s downtown and east of the river, has been trying, in fits and starts, to reinvent itself. The success of the Ulele restaurant and Water Works Park, coupled with the architecturally stunning Beck Building and the renovation of the streetcar barn have created a center of excellent design and adaptive reuse on the banks of the Hillsborough River.

The Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association has been working since 1985 to create a gathering spot for this community, just west of I-275. Its members have built a community garden and a KaBoom playground, worked with FDOT and the City of Tampa to develop a walking/biking trail, and transformed a boarded-up church into the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association Community Center.

This handsome, but stripped, red-brick edifice from 1920 is getting new flooring, air conditioning, plumbing, paint, bathrooms and lighting. It will be a safe home for children and teens to learn new skills. Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia Restaurant Group (which includes Ulele) has agreed to donate a commercial kitchen to train aspiring cooks. The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay has awarded the Center a grant, Michael Charles from CGM has donated the HVAC, and scores of community people have volunteered their time to the Center.

click to enlarge The in-process Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association Community Center. - chip weiner
chip weiner
The in-process Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association Community Center.
So what could go wrong?

Well, in 2006, an agreement was signed by the City of Tampa, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Tampa Heights Civic Association that the land adjacent to the interstate where the garden, bike path and Center are situated was to be “lent” to the neighborhood, with the understanding that when the interstate began its “Ultimate” expansion, the property would have to be relinquished.

Earlier, in 1996, FDOT had adopted a plan outlining the “Ultimate” expansion, a huge spread of lanes which would cut a painful swath through Tampa’s center. I sat on Tampa City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Organization at that time, but never believed that it would be built because it was such a dreadful plan and so expensive. Surely we would embrace transit and quit widening the interstate and destroying neighborhoods.

Proceeding with the Center was a calculated risk, yes, but a reasonable decision. The notion of adding more lanes through the middle of our urban core was not only wrong from an urban planning perspective; it also stood to make a disproportionally negative impact on a poor and minority neighborhood, which could trigger a Title 6 complaint. Even today this plan is not on the officially funded list of FDOT projects through 2040, so the neighborhood assumed that the future threat was in the hazy distance.

Enter the heavy. Paul Steinman, FDOT District 7’s new director, has decided that the interstate widening — which is meant to allow express toll lanes so that people who pay extra can avoid the congestion of the masses — should take place in Tampa Heights in the midst of these improvements, and not 20 years down the road, but immediately. With little notice or fanfare, FDOT, under the direction of Governor Scott, decided that this “Lexus Lane” project is urgent.

On May 12, the MPO convened a roundtable meeting with neighborhood leaders and FDOT staff moderated by Tampa City Councilman Les Miller, the MPO chairman. The news of the accelerated expansion floored the neighborhood representatives. Then, on June 2, the MPO voted to spend $20 million for right-of-way acquistion.

Lena Young Greene, an energetic and visionary leader in Tampa Heights, stresses that FDOT must listen to the neighborhoods that its plans are impacting. Instead of blindly following a decades-old plan, she hopes that FDOT will look at imaginative alternatives.

Juan Ricardes, a local architect and developer, questions the necessity of this project. “I always wonder why we live in a culture of demolition instead of preservation… Not only would destruction of the building be a tremendous loss, but its value to the people who interact with the center, and its importance to neighborhood character, would be lost as well.”

Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick, who represents this neighborhood, weighed in. “The community is making tremendous progress in getting this Center to open and so many people will be disappointed if FDOT were to demolish it.”

David Hugglestone, past AIA President, passionately calls for action. “The inherent form of urban highways, undulating between on-grade and overpass, completely severs neighbors from one another, leading to devastating social and economic detriment to adjacent and nearby communities… To hear that FDOT is planning to further metastasize the community-killing cancer, demolishing historic buildings and community gardens in its path, angers me… I, for one, demand that our elected officials wrangle FDOT and put an end to this madness.”

What could happen here? At best, our MPO decline to put the Interstate expansion on its Transportation Improvement Plan. That would be a bold move and would end the expansion. Or, in recognition of the undue burden placed on this neighborhood, it could dedicate adequate funds to move the Tampa Junior Civic Center building.

In the scope of this billion-dollar Interstate project, might that not be true justice? 

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