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Could the homeless call old Floriland a new home?

Every city has at least one: a bustling shopping center that was the Place back in the day and has now fallen on hard, sad times.

The old Floriland Mall hasn't made news in awhile, not for the sales of its glory days or for the crime that came later. But this week, Hillsborough County commissioners — fresh from rejecting plans for a homeless tent city — went scrambling for alternatives and came up with one: the Floriland site.

How fortunes have changed at Floriland.

The place opened when Richard Nixon was president as one of the first enclosed shopping centers around, in a prime locale at Busch Boulevard and Florida Avenue. Legions of kids bought their school shoes at Montgomery Ward and watched movies like Smokey and the Bandit at its theaters. Shoppers crowded the mall to stroll AC-cooled and carpeted halls decorated in an oh-so-'70s nautical theme. Along with nearby Northgate Plaza — home to the fancier Maas Brothers department store — Floriland was one of Tampa's first shopping meccas.

Only a few years later, bigger, badder University Square — what you might call a Real Mall — opened but a few miles away near USF. For Floriland, this was a serious pop in the chops. Storefronts emptied. Nearby neighborhoods struggled, and so did Floriland.

The owner of a clothing boutique was charged with running a prostitution ring out of there. A security guard was accused of sexually assaulting a shoplifter. Interstate 275 behind the mall could bring in the wrong kind of traffic: In 1983, a nude body was left in the parking lot.

By the time I was a new reporter writing about plans to improve the place, the once-lush carpet had turned a color you couldn't name and smelled of mushrooms. The movie theater was doing charity bingo. Flori­land looked sad and abandoned.

They tried. They put in palm trees and slapped on paint. A children's museum came and went. If Floriland could talk, it would not bring up those two ugly words from its past: flea market.

But by now we had tasted Sbarro slices and free chicken-on-toothpicks in food courts and cruised megasales at three-story Burdines. We were not going back.

Now here's an interesting note (if you find the history of shopping centers interesting): Another not-so-pretty and even older center, Britton Plaza, thrives in South Tampa. It's home to a Stein Mart, Marshalls, and Publix. Maybe this is because it is ringed by the city's wealthier neighborhoods and some of the residents reportedly get the flutters at the very idea of shopping north of Kennedy Boulevard.

Do not count plucky Flori­land out, however. Floriland Mall morphed into Floriland Office Center, housing for-the-people type tenants such as the Department of Children and Families, a center to help victims of domestic violence and a Workforce Alliance.

Hillsborough commissioners, stung by recent criticism for rejecting plans for a transitional tent city in a county with the worst homeless problem in the state, are seeing possibility in Floriland. Um, possible snags, guys? The mall owner is less than interested and, like last time, you can count on neighbors for a hearty not-in-my-backyard. So we'll see.

But if you think about it, Floriland's appeal now is the same as decades ago: great location for what they're selling, and plenty of business to boot.

Could the homeless call old Floriland a new home? 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 9:34pm]

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