Urban Pioneers Work To Jumpstart Tampa Heights Neighborhood, Florida

Heather Frankel can see downtown Tampa from the second story balcony of the classic Spanish Mediterranean house she owns on one of Tampa Height's main historic streets.

"I love everything about it here,'' she says. "I love the diverse mix of people, the neighborhood and the architecture. At one time, there were more Victorian homes here than anywhere else in the area.''

Frankel grew up in a Clearwater suburban neighborhood, but after graduating from the University of South Florida, she "landed'' in the Heights of Tampa, charmed by the gritty vibe and the small-town feel of the more urban neighborhood. 

"Once I got here, it was a no-brainer,'' she says. "The location is just great. It's in close proximity to everything. I can ride my bike to downtown concerts. Even the airport is just seven minutes away.''

A realtor with Charles Rutenberg, Frankel, 41, is also the first VP of the Tampa Heights Civic Association board and a strong champion for the urban renewal that is taking place here.

While there are signs everywhere that change is coming, the community has been plagued with hard times, poverty and crime for decades despite its grand beginning. At one time, most of Tampa's movers and shakers lived here just north of downtown, in an area bordered by Hillsborough River on one side, Hillsborough Avenue to the north and Seminole Heights and Ybor City to the east.

Wallace F. Stovall, president of The Tampa Tribune newspaper had one of the big Victorian homes on the brick streets dotted with tall oaks. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders camped here on their way to Cuba to fight the Spanish-American War. It's the place where dozens of wealthy business owners moved their families after the yellow fever epidemic struck Tampa in 1887, prompting people to flee the downtown core to seek the fresh air and higher ground of the "heights.''

Now there's a new energy and a sense that the Heights finally may be getting its due after years of slow progress. Here's a look at a few of the projects underway or planned:

Waterworks Park & Restaurant -- The value of the Heights waterfront location along the banks of the Hillsborough River may finally be recognized. Last year, the city announced a project to restore Ulele Springs, which once supplied the city's drinking water, and the surrounding property, now known as Waterworks Park. Plans call for shell paths, gardens, sculptures, water features, boat slips and more. There's also a link with the 2.5 mile Riverwalk, which will connect the Heights with downtown. The old brick pump house on the property will become a restaurant with outdoor seating. Negotiations are now underway between the city and the Gonzmart family, owners of the Columbia Restaurant, who have been awarded the bid to create a waterfront dining experience.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is enthusiastic about the prospects. "Tampa Heights is known for its historic buildings, access to the Hillsborough River and proximity to downtown,'' says the mayor. "It's already a very special corner of the city, but I want more people to have an opportunity to enjoy the area. It starts with Water Works Park and transforming the Water Works building into a restaurant, and my hope is that will reenergize the whole neighborhood.''

Trolley Barn -- Last October, Adam Harden and Chas Bruck of SoHo Capital purchased the old street car "Trolley Barn'' and Tampa Armature Works Building, as well as 30 acres of land surrounding it. The development's location, just across the street from the Water Works Park and restaurant, will add to the area's renaissance. This is the second proposed project for the area (the previous developers declared bankruptcy in 2011 after the collapse of the real estate market). New plans call for following the original master plan: a mixed-use residential and commercial development called Riverside Heights.
Lee's Grocery Store -- Jennifer Hatchcock first purchased the property as an investment after graduating from the University of South Florida. That was six years ago. At the time, it was a run-down convenience store, serving what she calls a "bad element.'' Her luck turned when the tenant stopped paying rent, allowing her to evict him and take over herself. 

The store reopened in October 2011, this time selling craft beer, wine, gourmet pizza and wine to go. Hatchcock hopes to have her alcohol license by March when rezoning goes through. In the meantime, the place has become a community hang-out, with locals meeting in the outdoor patio garden and using the store's community bulletin to keep connected. Hatchcock also owns and lives in the duplex next door. "I hop off the porch and I'm at work,'' she jokes. It’s an ideal commute.

The Heights Community Garden & Greenway -- Cabbage, lettuce, turnips, carrots, broccoli, herbs and tomatoes are growing in the new organic garden, which opened in 2011 and now has 59 individual plots and five community garden plots. Community potlucks are held here and neighborhoods meet to discuss gardening techniques. Developer Abby Dohring donated a large sculpture by local artist Marc DeWaele to the garden, adding to the ambience.

Adjacent to the garden is a several-mile greenway trail that connects the Heights with downtown. It's perfect for bicyclists, joggers and those just out for a stroll. But what's truly amazing is the land for both the trail and the garden are owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, set aside for possible future expansion of Interstate 275. But now, as cars speed by above, gardeners and pedestrians enjoy the space below. Community residents, the city and DOT worked together to make it all happen. "We're leasing the garden space for just a dollar a year,'' says Frankel.

The Junior Civic Association & KaBOOM Playground -- The interior of the former historic Faith Temple Baptist Church is being demolished to create a new home for the Junior Civic Association and its after school program for children and teens. The project, which started in 2010, has been a massive effort with help from local volunteers and community partners, along with major funding from Suncoast Federal Credit Union, says Patrick Sneed, the association's executive director. Phase two of the project is on hold temporarily, waiting for additional funding, materials and skilled labor, says Sneed.

The Junior Civic Association scored another home run with news that it was awarded a KaBOOM playground, a national public-private initiative to ensure that kids have a safe place to play. The association is working with local partners, including the City of Tampa, FDOT and PNC Bank, which has provided the bulk of funding. Build-date for the playground is later this year.

MiraclePlace -- Metropolitan Ministries is reconfiguring its Tampa Heights campus to double its capacity to care for homeless families. MiraclePlace, now under construction, will offer 94 family apartments, along with an adult education center, daycare center, expanded kitchen, community center and a partnership school in affiliation with Hillsborough County. Metropolitan Ministries is a nonprofit organization that serves families in need.

The Beck Group -- Beck's new two-story, 30,000-square-foot "green'' headquarters sits adjacent to Waterworks Park. The architectural and development firm chose Tampa Heights for an eco-friendly office complex that would also contribute to urban renewal in one of Tampa's designed community redevelopment areas. The LEED-certified building features a green roof, solar panels, recycled materials and more.

Stetson Law Center -- An early entry into the Heights renewal efforts, Stetson University’s three-story, 73,500-square-foot Mediterranean Revival Tampa Law Center opened in 2004.  The Tampa branch of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals is now housed there as well.  Nearby is also the law office of Bush Ross, which relocated from downtown Tampa into its own new two-story, 34,000-square foot headquarters in the Heights in 2008. 

The Sanctuary -- Local developer Russ Versaggi and architects John Tennison and Vivian Salaga Tennison, experts in historic renovation, were urban pioneers nearly a decade ago when they took the former Tampa Heights Methodist Church, a fabulous Greek Revival Church built in 1911, and remade it into 32 high-end chic urban loft apartments, keeping many of the gorgeous architectural details intact. 

"It was a measured risk,'' says Versaggi, of the team's decision to take on the project about five years ago. "We hoped that the location's visibility in the historic district would be a catalyst for the surrounding neighborhood, and it has. Several homes and businesses were refurbished or newly built on the street, creating a flow of confidence in the community at large.'' The building is now 95 percent occupied and the Tennisons, who own Atelier Architecture, have their offices there.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about interesting businesses, communities and individuals that showcase the creativity, talent and diversity of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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