Some years back, James Freyvogel was part of a Tampa Chamber of Commerce group that went to Charlotte, N.C., to see that city's stunning urban revitalization. It got him thinking about parts of Tampa itself.
South Tampa's SoHo area, where Freyvogel then lived, seemed more of a "night spot than a real neighborhood.'' Channelside, with its high-rises, "was kind of sterile.'' But on a visit to West Tampa, he found himself admiring the century-old cigar factories and the shotgun houses where the workers once lived.
"West Tampa just felt so authentic,'' Freyvogel recalls — so much so that he and his partner bought a home a few blocks from the mural that has long proclaimed: It's Time For West Tampa.
Now, that time could finally be here.
The city is about to demolish the area's decrepit N Boulevard public housing complex and is spending $35 million to refurbish the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory will soon be reborn as the Jewish Community Center. A Louisiana company recently paid $1.4 million for a vacant cigar factory that it plans to turn it into a boutique hotel.
Dozens of new houses are boosting property values in West Tampa, especially in the part that lies within the coveted Plant High School district. There, prices have risen more than 20 percent in each of the past five years, far more than for Hillsborough County as a whole.
So is West Tampa poised to become the next hot-demand area, generating the kind of enthusiasm that has transformed St. Petersburg's Historic Kenwood and Tampa's Seminole Heights?
"I think West Tampa is really very ripe for redevelopment,'' said Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner who built more than 50 houses in its historic core right before the real estate crash. "The fact that West Tampa has fairly affordable homes between the two largest employment centers — West Shore and downtown Tampa — is a huge advantage.''
West Tampa's 9,300 residents live in an area bounded by N Armenia Avenue to the west, the Hillsborough River to the east, W Columbus Drive to the north and W John F. Kennedy Boulevard to the south. But despite a rich architectural and cultural heritage, it remains one of Tampa's most blighted neighborhoods.
As of last year, when council members approved a redevelopment plan for West Tampa, city figures showed that area's crime rate was 1 1/2 times higher than the city average. It had more than twice as many structures rated "fair'' or ''poor." Large areas lacked sidewalks and decent street lighting. The median income of its residents — two-thirds of them African-American, 20 percent Hispanic — was less than $19,000.
"West Tampa was totally, totally neglected,'' said City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who grew up near Columbus Drive, nicknamed "Boliche Boulevard'' after the Cuban pot roast. "The city has done nothing. West Tampa survived on its own, and it survived because of the will of its people.''
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When lawyer Hugh C. MacFarlane moved to Tampa in the late 1800s, it didn't take him long to notice how quickly the Ybor City area was developing due its cigar industry. MacFarlane and some friends acquired 200 acres on the west side of the river and began luring factories and workers.
Within a few years, West Tampa was a thriving city with a Police Department and more residents than Tallahassee. It produced millions of hand-rolled cigars before it, like Ybor City three decades earlier, was annexed by Tampa in 1925.
During the Great Depression, Tampa's cigar industry began an irreversible slide hastened by mechanization and the closing of many factories. West Tampa, though, continued to grow with residents moving from Ybor City in the 1950s when the interstate cut through there.
"What saved it was the African-American community and the Latin community — those working-class people that needed homes that were reasonably priced and purchased them so they weren't abandoned like they were in Ybor,'' said Capin, whose parents joined the westward exodus when she was 10.
Capin remembers West Tampa as a close-knit community that took special pride in its Little Leaguers who went on to major-league fame — Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez, among them. As other areas of Tampa began to blossom, however, West Tampa became a landscape of rundown houses and boarded-up businesses.
"West Tampa at one point 30 years ago was the most dangerous place in Tampa,'' Turanchik said.
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The first major stab at redevelopment came in the early 2000s when the West Tampa library, the oldest in the county, got a $2 million face-lift. But hopes for a new, larger post office never materialized. An attempt to restore the Centro Espanol social club for use by the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League ran so much over budget that the league disbanded and the 1912 building remained vacant for years afterward.
In 2006, Turanchik decided West Tampa was again ripe for revitalization. His InTown Homes built 55 shotgun-style houses in a part of the area designated as a National Historic District.
"When we started developing, only 30 percent of the homes there were owned by residents,'' Turanchik said. "What our company did was focus on rebuilding nine blocks in that historic core because we believed that people owning these homes was the foundation for stabilizing the neighborhood.''
"The only thing that stopped us,'' Turanchik added, "was the recession.'' That forced InTown to slash prices and turn some lots back to the lender.
Among those who bought before the market bottomed out were Freyvogel, then CEO of MacDonald Training Center, and his partner, Lorin Campbell. In early 2008, they paid $275,000 for a two-story InTown house on N Albany Avenue.
"We knew it was a really tough neighborhood,'' said Freyvogel, now retired, ''but we were tired of cookie-cutter stuff.''
For the first year, the couple and other InTown buyers were plagued by thefts of relatively inexpensive items such as door mats and outdoor furniture. They assumed the thieves were long-time residents resentful — and fearful — of newcomers gentrifying the neighborhood.
In the past few years, crime has dropped — "you don't see as many police cars,'' Freyvogel says — and property values have risen, though not back to precrash levels.
"The areas is settling down, it's a little more laid back,'' he said. "The neighborhood is great, you can get anywhere fast'' — downtown Tampa in five minutes, Tampa International Airport in 10.
Banker-turned-developer Robert Morris bought and flipped some West Tampa foreclosures after prices plunged. His real focus, however, is on reviving the area's Main Street.
Running all the way to the river, Main Street once was a busy commercial hub. Today, it's a rough-looking strip largely bereft of businesses except for a barbecue place, a Metro PCS phone store and a tattoo parlor.
"It was severely neglected and still is,'' Morris said. "You have people just hanging out, drinking and smoking pot, because they have nowhere to go. They're not bad people, they're not causing crime, it's just the perception and the idea you'd never allow that in South Tampa.''
Morris has hired local residents to help clean up the area, where he renovated an old building into a venue called the Space at 2106 Main. Available for rent, it hosts theater, music, art, improv and other events.
"I wanted to do something to get the community involved so there was more of a positive effect for the neighborhood,'' Morris said. One goal is to rename the area the "Old West Tampa Arts District'' in hopes of drawing more gay and younger people.
There are other encouraging signs of revival nearby — a fitness studio, new loft-style apartments, a building being readied for use as a TV production studio.
But parking is extremely scarce throughout all of West Tampa, and the area is also badly in need of sidewalks, street repaving, improved drainage and better lightning.
Under its redevelopment plan for West Tampa, the city will be able to use property taxes generated by the growth in the area's property values to address those needs as well as improve the transportation network and prepare sites for development.
The challenge, many feel, will be making West Tampa more livable without taking the life out of it.
"I really do believe there is a fair degree of consensus about maintaining its cultural, ethnic and income diversity but moving beyond where it is and prospering,'' Turanchik said. "Nobody thinks it should stay where it is, but it doesn't want to lose its essence.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate