Neighborhood transformation and historic preservation in Tampa Heights

A decade ago, Hope Donnelly bought and restored the 99-year-old Rialto Theatre on North Franklin Street, the business district of the Tampa Heights neighborhood, Tampa’s first suburb.

“It was quite the ghost town,” Donnelly recalls. “You could park anywhere. You could walk across the street without looking.”

“You might see a tumbleweed here and there,’’ she jokes.

Among the few businesses on the stretch, she says, were the Florida School of Woodwork and the Oceanic Supermarket, the popular Asian grocery store that has been on the corner of Franklin and Kay Street since the 1980s.

Hope Donnelly, owner of the Rialto Theatre in Tampa Heights (Photo by Foto Bohemia).The Rialto once showed movies and offered live shows, closing in 1950. For the next six decades, it served as the warehouse for an automotive shop. Donnelly rents the beautifully restored building for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events.

Over the last 10 years, other businesses, among them Hidden Springs Ale Works brewery, have come to Franklin Street north of I-275, a stretch known as Yellow Brick Row for the color of the bricks on the historic buildings. The North Franklin Street corridor was designated a historic district in 2010 and the new owners moving in have restored and preserved the buildings.

“The building owners have done a masterful job of making sure that their buildings have a historic designation, so hopefully that will prevent them from being torn down and building a 30-story building on top,’’ says Karen Kress, senior director of transportation and planning for the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which is working to preserve and use the buildings that have been on that stretch since early last century.

She likes the variety of murals that decorate buildings in the district, among them a painting of Dorothy and friends from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I think anytime there’s a creative community visible, it just makes an area cool,’’ Kress says.

Change comes, businesses bloom, residential prices and demand rise

Donnelly says her timing was great, that she “was a little ahead of the curve by luck.’’
The year after she bought the Rialto, Water Works Park opened and the Gonzmart family, owners of the Columbia Restaurant Group, renovated the old pump house nearby and opened the celebrated Ulele restaurant. Then came the Armature Works. The sprawling event space and upscale food hall was created out of the renovated streetcar garage. It opened in 2018.

All around, change is happening. On Florida Avenue, the next street east of Franklin, a 321-unit apartment building is under construction, continuing the trend of lower downtown. The Pearl Apartments near the Armature Works opened in 2018. The YMCA is planning a new building at Palm and Florida Avenues. Sprouts Farmers Market opened on Seventh Avenue in 2021.

Houses make up most of the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Its boundaries are Interstate 275 on the south and east, N Boulevard on the west and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the north. As has happened in Seminole Heights, the old neighborhood to the north, new residents have bought vacant land and built new houses or renovated the old Craftsman and bungalow-style homes.

Houses there have shot up in price, says Donnelly, who also owns an arts consulting company, 8-Count Productions.

“You had people who could buy a house 10 or 15 years ago for under $100,000, and now you can’t touch anything for (less) than $400,000 or $500,000 easily,’’ she says.
Kali Rabaut, florist, botanical artist and owner of Blue House Florals, says she and her husband, Paul Rabaut, feel fortunate to have moved to Tampa Heights four years ago. Kali Rabaut, owner of Blue House Florals, and her family moved to Tampa Heights four years ago. (Devyn With a Why/Provided by Kali Rabaut).

“There is no way we would be able to live where we live now,’’ she says.

They live a couple of blocks north of the Armature Works. She loves the proximity to the Riverwalk, the fact that she and her husband can bike their two young children to school, the grocery store, nearby parks and events in downtown Tampa. Paul Rabaut, a biology professor at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City, rides his bike to work, so they were able to eliminate one of their two cars.

“It’s a really special place,’’ she says.

Preserving Yellow Brick Row

As The Heights changes, it’s vital to protect and preserve the Yellow Brick Row, Kress says. As she pointed out in an earlier interview, it’s the preserved historical structures that give a place character and authenticity, distinguishing it from “just anywhere, USA.’’

She’s cautiously optimistic about the future. She says part of the problem is that Tampa Heights does not fall within an established Community Redevelopment Area, which allows a percentage of rising taxes to be used to improve infrastructure in the community.

“So we have that disadvantage we need to figure out. It’s not really ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. The sidewalks are crumbling in places. There’s really no street trees, there’s a ton of opportunity that we identified in the plan,’’ Kress says, referring to the downtown partnership’s Franklin Street Corridor Historic Preservation Plan. “We just have to figure out what the funding mechanisms might be.”

The service area of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which works to improve the downtown community, concentrates on the Tampa Heights business district and extends to Palm Avenue. But the partnership has limited funds to devote to the district’s infrastructure needs, Kress says. The answer, she adds, may be to expand an existing CRA to cover the area.

Kate Swann, founder of Florida School of Woodwork, moved to a historic building on the Yellow Brick Row in 2009, when it looked desolate. But more businesses started coming to North Franklin and it was becoming quite vibrant, Swann says, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It’s starting to come back now, she says, with the development of the district.

She says it all started with the extension of the Riverwalk under the I-275 overpass.

“That was a huge tipping point, and the Armature Works came after that,’’ she says.

As for her business, she says it’s been a remarkable journey.

“We have probably the most renowned (furniture) makers in the United States come and teach here. So we have an incredible reputation. I know that I’m biased, but it’s been lovely to watch that evolve,’’ she says. “I think there’s still tons of potential to be had in this neighborhood.’’

A neighborhood institution

Sookie Choi, whose grandfather started the Oceanic Supermarket more than 40 years ago, says the business – with its vast selection of Asian products – has thrived for many years, drawing customers from throughout West Central Florida. But the new development in downtown Tampa and Tampa Heights has had a welcome impact.

Sookie Choi, whose grandfather started the Oceanic Supermarket in Tampa Heights more than 40 years ago.“It does bring in more customers,’’ she says.

Her brother, Cheong Choi, opened Cafe Hey in 2007. “Hey, actually, is the word in Cantonese for happiness,’’ he says, explaining the name. The little sandwich shop is on the east, Franklin Street side of Oceanic’s building, where murals adorn the long facade.

“At that time it was pretty quiet over here,’’ he says. “We were able to establish ourselves pretty easily. No one else was here and it let us do a lot of weird art stuff that no one would bother us about.’’

Business has picked up with the new development. As he watches Tampa Heights transform, he says, “What I’m hoping is that there’s space carved out for people who are willing to invest large amounts of money, but then also people who are just starting out, trying to eke out a little space here.

“It is a very small neighborhood, so it’s not like you can just keep building and building and building,” he says.

For more information, go to Tampa Downtown Partnership.

This story is produced through an underwriting agreement with the Tampa Downtown Partnership to profile the unique neighborhoods that make up Tampa's downtown..
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.