South Tampa's Howard Ave grows as culinary destination

Howard Avenue in South Tampa is a roadway with a dual personality.

On any Friday evening a mostly young crowd heads toward the northern most end of the avenue, beyond Swann Avenue, ready to party at one of the avenue's trendy bars. They arrive on foot, by car or by taxi. Or they tap a mobile phone app to summon a ride from Uber or Lyft.

MacDinton's Irish Pub, Yard of Ale SoHo, The DrYnk Bar & Lounge and World of Beer are among a dozen or more entertainment destinations for the 20-somethings and young professionals, a demographic sought after by developers and city officials who are re-casting Tampa's downtown and core neighborhoods for "live, work and play" lifestyles.

But head in the opposite direction, south of Swann, and South Howard takes on a different feel as the Epicurean Hotel, Post Soho Square apartments, Green Lemon Mexican restaurant, Ava, and FK (Fresh Kitchen) fill out an emerging new market.

This end of Howard is looking ahead to more restaurants, shops and a broader demographic from young professionals to empty-nesters.

And for some, it signals a transition for South Howard in its look and its purpose.

"South Howard should be more of a culinary district than a bar district," says Bill Carlson, President of Tucker Hall, a public relations firm. "A bar district tends to be faddie. They boom for a short period and then they bust. That's not what the neighborhood wants."

The block between Swann and Bristol Avenue is one model for how South Howard can be re-designed as a main north/south thoroughfare through the heart of South Tampa's historic Hyde Park neighborhood. It is anchored by Post SoHo, the latest apartment complex amid an on-going residential boom in South Tampa.

The 3-story apartment building, with 231 upscale dwellings, are filling up with new residents. Plants and small tables are appearing on balconies overlooking Howard.

Below, a broad span of sidewalk, with salmon-colored paving stones, is invitingly walkable. Retail spots are taken by Burger Fi, a national burger chain, and Ava, an upscale Italian restaurant owned by Michael Stewart and former Tampa Bay Rays' manager, Joe Maddon. Across the street there is 717 South restaurant and a strip plaza with Urban Body Clothing, Kensington Salon & Spa, and Starbucks.

Further down there is a new boutique, LMB, and older restaurants such as Daily Eats and Bella's Italian Cafe. Fresh Kitchen is a new health-focused "fast food" eatery from the Ciccio Restaurant Group, across from old favorite, Sally O'Neal's Pizza. Bern's Park is an oasis of fresh green space.

Bern's Steak House and the Epicurean anchor the most southern end of South Howard, closest to Bayshore Boulevard. The hotel offers fine dining at the Élevage, French pastries and chocolates at Chocolate Pi and libations at its roof-top bar, Edge. The Epicurean Theatre is a classroom of discovery for cooking and wine trends.

"Epicurean has been very significant in making Howard a food destination," says City Councilman Harry Cohen. "I think (South Howard) becomes much more of a mixed age hangout."

Growing diversity of South Tampa crowd

On an evening on South Howard, it is not all young professionals. Parents with toddlers pull off coats and fold up strollers, before walking into Burger Fi. Intergenerational families disembark from cars and walk to restaurants. Some older couples walk along the sidewalk, clutching dining take-aways or purchases from the local drugstore. Epicurean hotel guests stroll into Urban Body Clothing. A woman from Carrollwood waits for her husband before dining at Ava.

"You are seeing much more of a food centric culture emerging, not just a bar scene," Cohen says.

Rania Shamekh, 39, walks past Post Soho, her dog in tow.

She worries about noise and traffic congestion as the area grows and gains residents. But it is a good place to live, Shamekh says. "It's entertaining and I can walk anywhere. I can find a lot of nice restaurants and have a coffee. And there are nice places for breakfast."

But there are stiff challenges ahead to realize South Howard's potential.

Blight can be found in undeveloped lots or abandoned commercial sites, notably a closed plaza across from Hugo's Spanish Restaurant. Tampa City Council rejected an apartment project for the site amid concerns about the project's scale and increased traffic congestion. Its future is uncertain.

City council also rejected an alcohol permit for a restaurant proposed for an antique shop on the northern end of the avenue. That site's future also is in limbo.

“It's a great, great growing tax base for the city," Cohen says of the area but council is being careful in what it approves.

Traffic congestion and lack of parking remain as chronic problems for business owners and residents alike along South Howard.

Seeking solutions to challenges of urban growth

The bars and restaurants comply with city regulations on parking through a patchwork pattern of valet lease agreements, on-street parking or on-site parking. Azeele Street, off Howard, is being used as a pickup and drop off point by taxi drivers, and eases some traffic jams.

But Cohen says the ongoing legal dispute between taxi regulators and owners of social media-based Uber and Lyft keeps drivers for Uber and Lyft away from the taxi line. "They pick up people in the street which is what the taxi line was meant to stop," he says.

The city recently hired a consultant, DKS, to complete a traffic study on Howard and make recommendations on congestion, intersection hazards, street lighting, speed limits and sidewalk conditions. No big ticket projects are anticipated but Cohen says the city can whittle away at some of the study's recommendations.

More on-street parking along Platt could help. And Cohen says, neighborhood associations might be willing to contribute to costs of items such as decorative street lights. Business owners, he adds, also have expressed willingness to help financially.

"A lot of us have spent the last nine months or so trying to brain storm some ideas for the district," he says. "You are starting to see some of them bubble up to the surface. We know we all have to co-exist. What we do together will get these things pushed along."

Long-time Hyde Park resident Del Acosta is noticing something new in the district.

"There's always people awake in the neighborhood. It makes for a comfortable and safe environment," he says. At the same time he is stopped by business travelers staying at the Epicurean who want to know where to find more restaurants and shops. 

"There's going to be a level of disappointment today," Acosta says. "You can't have high-end retail without visitors in your community. Our community needs a full gamut of retail. One way to broaden that is to have a bigger visitor base. Hyde Park is one of the places to make it happen."

Change for the future that honors the past

Hyde Park Village, a few blocks off South Howard, is in the midst of renewed development from new owners at Boston-based WS Development, who say they'll populate the open-air village center with independent retailers. Acosta says it is potentially a commercial hub that should be a major stop along  an expanded trolley system that would loop through downtown and Channel District and onto South Tampa.

And playing off the Epicurean's influence, Acosta adds, "It would be nice if we had a culinary school in the district. And, more facilities for innovative chefs."

Cohen says discussions at Metropolitan Planning Commission at least for now don't include Hyde Park Village as a trolley stop. And no funds are identified for such a project. Though, he says, "It's going to make a lot of sense to connect those two areas."

One more wish Acosta has for South Howard is to peel away the paving to find the bricks beneath. Some streets and alleys in Hyde Park and Ybor City have retained their historical bricked designs.
"It sends a signal this is a special place," Acosta says.

Carlson would like to replace the district's "SoHo" brand which he says is linked with the bar scene and is a moniker associated with other cities, notably London. 

"As this changes and transitions into more of a culinary district we really need to re-brand back to what it always was - South Howard," he says. "It (SoHo) doesn't provide a distinct brand for Tampa. We need to have something that Tampa owns, like Ybor City. It's not a copy of anything else."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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