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Westchase splits as more establishments sell alcohol


Ajazz band plays a cool tune from an elevated stage on a Saturday night. The room is dimly lit except for red low lights. Patrons pour wine from sleek stainless steel chillers.

If you weren't careful, you might think this was an urban enclave.

Instead, you are smack dab in the suburbs, at Blend Lounge, one of the latest bars to open in Westchase.

The lounge serves more than 50 wines and exotic beers. The owners would like to serve martinis as well, and recently applied to Hillsborough County for a permit to sell hard liquor.

"We want to create a nice, laid-back vibe," said co-owner Scott Zepp, who is also a partner at neighboring World of Beer. "A place that people around Westchase can go in and enjoy."

But residents who live nearby aren't happy about the news. They say the liquor license would be one more step toward turning Westchase into a destination more suited for parties than families.

Mike Niemis, president of the West Park Village Townhomes association, is among them.

Said Niemis: "It's turning into a mini Ybor City in the middle of suburbia."

• • •

Gradually, the number of businesses serving alcohol has increased inside the Avenues at Westchase, the community's prominent restaurant and retail complex.

Last year, Maloney's, an Irish pub selling hard liquor, opened. Zen Bistro, a longtime sushi bar in the shopping center, also sells liquor. Siam Thai, a new Asian restaurant in the same strip mall, was approved to serve beer and wine last month. Tijuana Flats, a casual Mexican eatery, and World of Beer also sell beer.

Other restaurants in Westchase also sell alcohol, including Catch 23 and Stone Chase Grill.

The establishments produce noise, parking problems and loitering, say residents who live nearby. Some believe that people drawn from outside Westchase are part of the problem, though the majority of patrons on a recent night lived in Westchase.

Over the past six months, deputies have responded to three alcohol-related calls in the shopping center — not considered a problematic area, said Phil Acaba, a Hillsborough County sheriff's community resource deputy.

Still, at its April 8 board meeting, the Westchase Community Association discussed allowing residents to put "No Trespassing" signs on their yards. The measure didn't pass.

Zepp said serving liquor at Blend is a way of weathering a rocky economy and providing more options for customers.

"We have people working at these places that are trying to survive," Zepp said.

From its inception in the mid '90s, Westchase has been heralded for its mixed-use concept. It was called "Tampa's New Generation community" in 1995, known as a place to live, work, attend school and play.

It was part of the reason David Venditto, 38, and his wife moved to the West Park Village Townhomes about two years ago. But instead of new family restaurants opening, Venditto saw more drinking establishments.

"I'm not against bars. In fact, I enjoy the bars, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't have preferred a really nice breakfast place to move in," said Venditto, who has small children.

He was among a group of residents who spoke in opposition to Maloney's liquor license during a county zoning hearing last year. The license was approved.

In a dismal housing market and economy, many neighborhoods are looking for ways to attract and keep residents of many types. Now in Westchase, for every David Venditto there's a John Gibson.

Gibson, a 32-year-old modern artist, moved to Westchase a few years ago because of the mix of businesses — especially bars.

"If you live in Westchase, you don't have to go anywhere else," Gibson said on a recent night while having a beer at Maloney's. "Anything you want is here. I call it candy land."

Gibson laughs at the Ybor comparison.

"It's not that crazy around here," said Gibson, who comes to Maloney's for live music. "This is a place for families and middle- and upper-class people."

Some say the mix of bars and homes is a good thing. Loren January said living in "stumbling distance" from home has kept her from facing a DUI charge.

January, 27, lives in the Greens neighborhood and walks to bars like Maloney's and Zen.

• • •

County guidelines say that a business selling alcohol within 500 feet of a school must apply for a special use permit. Westchase Elementary sits across the street from Blend, which is located at 9526 Linebaugh Ave.

The decision is up to the county's zoning hearing master, who will hear the case June 14. He will have 15 days to render a decision.

If approved, Zepp said, Blend will follow all the guidelines that come with having a hard liquor permit. "We want to be the most responsible neighbors that we can be," he said.

Venditto isn't so sure.

"If you're asking someone to apply for a hard liquor license, the assumption is it can't be great for the neighborhood," he said. "It's as simple as that."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected].

Fast facts

Want to have

your say?

A hearing on Blend Lounge's application for a special liquor permit will be held at 6 p.m. June 14 in the second floor boardroom of County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., downtown Tampa.

Westchase splits as more establishments sell alcohol 06/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 2:25pm]
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