New homes, investments spur transformational change in West Tampa

Mention West Tampa to a friend, especially a younger friend or someone who has lived in Tampa for only a decade or so, and your friend is likely to think you mean somewhere out by Westchase in western Hillsborough County, or maybe the Westshore business district between Westshore Mall and International Plaza.

Logical guesses, but wrong.

West Tampa may have been on the fringes of Tampa when it first developed a century ago -- in fact, it was a city unto itself for about 30 years -- but now it’s right in the heart of Tampa.

Even people who know where West Tampa is located are likely to think of it too narrowly. West Tampa isn’t just that area south of I-275, where the Bryan Glazer Family JCC now occupies the former National Guard Armory and all those cool old brick buildings stand as reflections of the past.

West Tampa - Google mapThe West Tampa neighborhood’s official boundaries are the Hillsborough River on the east, Hillsborough Avenue on the north, Dale Mabry Highway on the west and Kennedy Boulevard on the south.

So, far from being a neighborhood of shuttered or repurposed cigar factories, West Tampa is an ethnically and commercially diverse and dynamic area that includes the University of Tampa, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Raymond James Stadium and that stretch of Columbus Drive nicknamed “Boliche Boulevard” that’s home to many of Tampa’s best Spanish and Cuban restaurants.

The population of the neighborhood stands at just over 20,000. It's a little higher during the school year, when about 3,000 University of Tampa students call West Tampa home.

"The University of Tampa is growing, and its footprint is getting bigger," says Terry Eagan, project manager for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission. UT has been acquiring buildings to use for student housing that are outside the traditional boundaries of the campus.

More diverse than you may think

Ethnically, West Tampa is more diverse than outsiders tend to believe. The perception is that it's a Hispanic neighborhood, but that's never been true.

"If you ask people who have lived here for a long time, they'll say it's Hispanic and Italian," says Dawn Hudson, the immediate past president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "It's actually about one-third Hispanic, one-third Italian and one-third  African-American."

The statistics that Eagan of the planning commission sees measure things a little differently, but basically support Hudson's estimates. Of registered voters, 3,291 categorize themselves as white, 3,022 say they're black and 3,001 say they're Hispanic. Another 815 categorize themselves as "other." Those numbers don't include children, or adults who aren't registered to vote, and the categories don't differentiate among nationalities.

West Tampa is also home to a growing number of businesses, large and small, that are discovering West Tampa’s accessibility and (for the moment at least) affordability.

“Things are booming,” says Gray Ellis. “And they’re only going to get better.”

Ellis ran Ellis-VanPelt Furniture before he turned the company over to his sons. Twenty-one years ago, the company bought the historic Antonio Santaella Cigar Factory at 1906 N. Armenia Ave. The company, which sells new and used office furniture, operates out of the first floor and basement, and leases the upper floors to artists and small businesses.

The neighborhood was sketchy at the time he moved the company there, Ellis says.

“It was alright during the day,” he says. “But it was bad at night.”

But at the time, prices were irresistible.

Growing investments in West Tampa

It’s taken a while, but in the past few years other businesses have started to follow the lead of Ellis-VanPelt. 

Software company Accusoft has offices in several buildings around West Tampa. Several small businesses that specialize in design work -- stone companies, draper companies and the like -- have moved into warehouses north of Kennedy Boulevard around Rome Avenue, creating the seeds of what local business leaders are starting to call a “design district.” A small gourmet restaurant called Petit Piquant moved in recently.

Toward the northern end of West Tampa, in the area anchored by St. Joseph's Hospital, a long-established medical corridor continues to burgeon, with new clinics, doctors’ offices, labs and research facilities joining the dozens of existing companies.

It’s reminiscent, some business leaders say, of the beginning of West Tampa’s first renaissance.

“This has happened before, about 80 years ago,” says Hudson of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce. 

It’s not just the business climate that’s improving. 

In terms of income levels of residents, West Tampa is changing, according to Eagan of the planning commission. About 1,700 residents of North Boulevard Homes and Presbyterian Village, low-income housing developments, near I-275 and the Hillsborough River, have been relocated in the past year and a half, and buildings demolished. 

The area will be the site of a new development called West River. McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis-based urban planning firm, has been hired to create a master plan for the area. North Boulevard Homes was built in 1941 and was long considered one of the most dangerous parts of Tampa.

Even though that particular part of West Tampa has been especially poverty-stricken, with more than 40 percent of the voting precinct below the poverty level, there are some stable neighborhoods within that section. In fact, just a few years ago, Eagan says, neighborhood residents held a meeting with governmental officials and representatives of the University of Tampa to complain about the behavior of UT students living in university-owned housing on their streets. The complaints ranged from general rowdiness to vomiting and public nudity. UT officials promised to expel students who disrespected the neighborhood.

Those couple of blocks were among the city's poorest, Eagan says, but it was a neighborhood that residents cared about and took pride in.

And that's not the only neighborhood in which West Tampa is seeing new homes being built. 

This is West Tampa!

Domain Homes, a Georgia homebuilder that began building in South Tampa years ago, where its offices are still located, has lately turned more of its attention to West Tampa. Domain is building on vacant lots or replacing older homes that are being torn down, offering home buyers the option to select a design resembling Tampa's historic shotgun homes. Domain’s homes are in the $250,000-$600,000 range.

Tim Terpening of Domain says a lot of his company’s customers don’t start out considering West Tampa. They soon realize they can get much more home for their money in West Tampa.

“We get calls from people who want to build in South Tampa,” he says, “but they have a West Tampa budget.”

Besides being more affordable than Hyde Park, Beach Park, Palma Ceia and many other South Tampa neighborhoods, West Tampa’s location makes it more convenient for commuting. Interstate-275 makes points east and west easily accessible, but at high-traffic times of day, surface streets allow residents to bypass congestion when they need to get downtown or to the airport. Dale Mabry Highway, North Boulevard and Armenia, Howard and Rome avenues offer easy routes to other parts of Tampa.

In addition to location, Terpening says, West Tampa has a level of neighborhood pride that he hasn't seen in some other Tampa neighborhoods.

Not long ago, Terpening says as an example, he was talking to some people near the University of Tampa. He casually referred to the area as “North Hyde Park.” Hyde Park, a couple miles to the south, is one of Tampa’s premiere neighborhoods, but the reference made a West Tampa man slightly indignant.

"This isn't Hyde Park," he said. "This is West Tampa."

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Read more articles by Marty Clear.

Marty Clear has been writing for various publications in the Tampa Bay area for more than 40 years, mostly covering the performing arts. He studied journalism at the University of South Florida and works nights at downtown Tampa’s legendary Hub bar. He goes to theater, dance and opera every chance he gets (in other words, any time he can afford it or he can cop a free ticket). He used to own a record store/ live music venue in Ybor City called Blue Chair. The first thing you may notice about him is that he’s 6’7”, and to answer your question, no, he doesn’t play basketball. He writes about West Tampa and other topics for 83 Degrees. Follow him on Twitter @martinclear.