Franklin Street Better Block Party in Tampa celebrates potential

The explosion of restaurants, hotels and new apartments in downtown Tampa is ready to burst past the northern boundary of Interstate 275 along North Franklin Street and into Tampa Heights.

Ulele restaurant, Water Works Park and the anticipated 43-acre, mixed-use village center project from SoHo Capital, known as The Heights, are leading the way along the city's Riverwalk. A few blocks to the east a once forgotten stretch of North Franklin is popping with new energy as part of the city's next emerging neighborhood.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 10, the Franklin Street Better Block party will celebrate North Franklin's future with music, food, arts and "pop-up" storefronts. It will be a day long demonstration of how two city blocks north of I-275, from Kay Street to Henderson Avenue, can be transformed into a complete, vibrant and walkable street.

The starting point is Cafe Hey at 1540 N. Franklin St., just north of the I-275 overpass.

Community activists with the Tampa Heights Civic Association are sponsoring the block party with support from The Beck Group and Tucker Hall. Other partners are CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Tampa Bay and Urban Charrette.
"We're seeing tons of renovations in the area," says Kasi Martin, a marketing strategist with DTCC and a member of the block party's organizing committee. "But it hasn't reverberated as far east as Franklin yet. But, all of the buildings are architecturally very beautiful, all yellow tinged brick. It's one of the only streets in Tampa with buildings that have the same character and architectural style."

And the distinctive historical buildings are lending a name to this emerging North Franklin district -- Yellow Brick Row.

Modeled after The Better Block

The block party is a concept of The Better Block, a national organization focused on getting local communities involved in the future of their neighborhoods. The party is a "living charrette" with residents, business owners, investors, urban planners and architects sharing ideas and dreams that can spark plans and projects for future development.

"What we're going for is a complete, active street and demonstrating what a future Franklin Street could be," says Brian Seel, the civic association's president and senior project engineer at The Beck Group. "But it's not just a block party or a street market. It is a planning process as well."

Rob Rowen, owner of Nuance Galleries, will have an exhibit of Cuban art. Tampa Street Cafe will set up tables and sell soups, sandwiches and baked goods. Rollin Zoinks Truck will have a variety of wraps for meat lovers and vegetarians. Additional food trucks expected to participate include I WANNA WOKCajun in a Truck and Commune + Co

A beer garden will offer a variety of local brews including ales from soon-to-open Croxbone Brewing Company. Musicians will perform in an open mic area. Games and recreational activities will be available. There will be a fitness demonstration including the use of "sustainable" cycling to generate electricity with pedal power.

Performers include singer Deanna Cheyne and bands, Fire Swamp Terrors and Ragged Old Souls.

North Franklin is the city's first Better Block project and one of only two or three in Florida.

The block party concept emerged during planning activities of Emerge Tampa Bay, the leadership program of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. The idea was passed along to Tampa Heights' civic association following a workshop with CNU that engaged area residents in visualizing the neighborhood's future growth.

A re-design of North Franklin is a priority for the Tampa Heights' neighborhood.

"It was a perfect meeting of the minds," says Martin.

Old meets new to build future

The street is coming to life with long-time retailers, such as Cafe Hey and the Oceanic Supermarket which fills a lot between Tampa Street and North Franklin. Other businesses include Franklin St. Fine Woodwork, Offsite Technology Solutions and the recently renovated Rialto Theatre, an arts, dance and events hall.

The theater is home to 8-Count Studios, owned by Hope Donnelly and George Carter II. They are hoping to brighten North Franklin with a giant mural painted atop the theater's roof. A kickstarter campaign is under way to collect donations for the mural which would be painted by St. Petersburg artist Leon "Tes One" Bedore.

Soon Hidden Springs Ale Works will open in a renovated building next to the Rialto.

There is potential for much more.

Jeanette Alonso and Maureen Ayral, partners in A2 LLC, are renovating a 16,000-square-foot building at 1701 N. Franklin St. It is the former home of Club Mansion, Club Nouveau and Ladies of the Sea Cafe.

The women are looking for more creative uses of the property, potentially including a new restaurant. About one or two queries a week are made by investors and business owners interested in the area's potential growth for restaurants, galleries and shops, Ayral says.

For the block party, the former club will be open for exhibitors and musicians. An alley holds potential for "pop-up" shops.

Re-activating alleys that have been abandoned helps link neighborhoods and gives business owners space to try out retail ideas, Ayral says. "You open it up for a short time for whoever wants to cycle through," she says.

The impact of downtown and Riverwalk projects is being felt, says Josh Dohring of The Dohring Group. The company is negotiating leases for property in the 1600 block of "Yellow Brick Row." 

There are letters of intent but no signed contracts as yet, says Dohring.

But he says, "Without a doubt, energy and activity there has been through the roof. The interest has been building since Ulele and the (Water Works) Park. That's also coming with the added energy of everything happening downtown."

North Franklin and Tampa Heights are at the epi-center  of the city's redevelopment activity as investors push northward from downtown, moving closer to the restaurant destinations that are boosting development interest in Seminole Heights, Dohring says.
"There's no where else to go," Dohring says. "It's just finally time."
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.