Thursday, September 20, 2018
News Roundup

Out of the park: Will new ballpark spell the end for Tampa Park Apartments?

TAMPA — From his bedroom window in Tampa Park Apartments, retired longshoreman Willie Jackson can see construction cranes transforming the skyline half a mile away in Channelside.

With a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark proposed barely more than a home-run away from his apartment, he’s thinking his neighborhood will soon have a date with a wrecking ball, too.

"If they buy the project, I won’t have no other choice but to move," he said.

The razing of poor, predominantly black neighborhoods that cleared the way for Tropicana Field is not a scenario the socially-conscious Tampa Bay Rays want to repeat as they look to find a new Tampa Bay home.

For that reason, team officials made it clear in behind-the-scenes talks with county officials they were not interested in building a ballpark at Tampa Park Apartments, an income-restricted housing complex on the edge of Ybor City.

But the site announced Tuesday by Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan lies only about 700 feet at its closest point from the aging housing complex. That would make it highly prized by developers looking to build bars, restaurants and residential development to cater to fans.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW: Five things to know about the proposed ballpark site

According to Hagan, Ybor City developer Darryl Shaw is in talks with the owners about buying the apartments. Shaw, already a key player in the acquisition of land for the ballpark, could not be reached Friday for comment. The 21-acre site is comprised of eight parcels that together are valued by the county property appraiser at about $11 million.

"The goal would be to put something there that complements the ballpark and the ancillary development around the park," Hagan said. "That’s not a part of this deal but it’s important piece because if that area is redeveloped it will add to the tax rolls. It would potentially help the funding of the park."

Rumors of a potential sale are nothing new for the roughly 1,200 people who call Tampa Park Apartments home.

Hagan’s Tuesday announcement has made all of that talk seem a lot more real.

Jackson, 64, said he doubts he can find another apartment for $429 per month.

"I always thought it would be 10 or 15 years before they sell this project," he said.

For Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP, a sale would be another example of how black communities are sacrificed when local governments plan major redevelopments.

"Every time they want to put a stadium in or put something in for the greater good for the community, it seems the like the African American community is at the lower end of totem pole and we just don’t get much consideration," she said. "No one asks for our opinion, they just ask for our vote."

•••

Another poor and predominantly black neighborhood known simply as the Gas Plant was demolished to make way for the Rays’ current home, Tropicana Field.

Named after two giant fuel tanks that towered over the center of the neighborhood, it was one of the city’s oldest African-American communities, a place of tenements, churches, large homes and nightclubs.

It included one of the city’s first libraries and The Harlem Theater, where blacks who were barred from downtown theaters could see the movies of the day.

By 1986 when construction began, 285 buildings had been demolished, 522 households had been relocated and more than 30 businesses had moved or closed from the 66-acre community.

Tampa Park Apartments is only about one third of the size of the Gas Plant. Still Lewis, the NAACP president, said it remains a vibrant community that feeds the nearby historically black school, Washington Elementary School, and three historically black churches. Its demolition would raise concerns about the future of all of them, she said.

"They’re pushing people out into the county and punishing the African-American community by dispersing them everywhere," she said.

Originally built as housing for longshoremen working at the nearby Port of Tampa, the first phase of Tampa Park Apartments was built in 1968.

It is owned by a nonprofit group that is led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews, who declined to comment for this story. Other officers of the nonprofit corporation include leaders of Local No. 1402 of the International Longshoremen’s Union.

The group has not given notice to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of any plans to end participation in the Section 8 housing program, which subsidizes rent for about 55 percent of residents.

The project is in better condition that the oldest public housing owned by the Tampa Housing Authority. Units have air-conditioning and well-kept landscaping. Some of the homes are further adorned with potted plants and garden furniture.

Still, HUD in July put the owners of the housing complex on notice that they could lose rent subsidies if they don’t address health and safety issues, after the complex earned a failing inspection score for the third straight year. Issues included blocked emergency and fire exits, damaged roofs and peeling paint.

The Tampa Housing Authority recently completed another major relocation effort with about 2,000 residents displaced by the planned demolition of North Boulevard Homes, an aging public housing complex.

Rising in its place: the mixed-income, walkable neighborhood called West River.

Because it is using affordable housing subsidies, the project must include the same number of public housing units as were demolished and give displaced residents the right to return.

Tampa Park Apartments, however, is privately owned, meaning there would be no such guarantee for its residents.

That’s a concern to Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who serves as chairman of the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board. He said affordable housing is scarce and a recent visit to a special needs shelter during Hurricane Irma drove home to him how the county’s poorest people are often overlooked.

"You see all the folks there who are hidden from society and my heart just breaks for them," he said. "It’s that unseen society that gets pushed aside once again."

Real estate experts have little doubt that land values around a new ballpark will outpace the rest of the region.

A study of real estate deals around 12 new professional sports venues by online real estate firm Ten-X found that home sales outpaced sales in the surrounding area about 80 percent of the time.

Kurt Westfield, a managing partner with Tampa real estate firm WC Equity Group, expects land prices could go up by almost 50 percent if the Rays confirm the Ybor site.

And Tampa Park Apartments’ location would make it too valuable to continue to be subsidized housing, he said.

"I’ve long considered this to be the premier site for the stadium, given its high traffic viability from all corridors, corner lot location, and being walkable from all of Centro (Ybor)," he said.

The rising land value and clamor of developers will increase the pressure on Andrews to sell, acknowledged Lewis, the NAACP president.

"I believe that she’ll make the best decision that she can," Lewis said. "She’s torn in this decision that she has to make."

Times senior news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

   
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