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SoHo's party scene gaining reputation with police, neighbors

TAMPA

A woman sobs in an alley as police command her to walk a straight line. Blocks away, a guy climbs on top of a police SUV and gets Tasered while struggling with officers.

In this neighborhood, bars rule the night. People park on side streets, often illegally. Neighbors complain of sex in alleys, beer bottles in yards.

This isn't Ybor City, Tampa's notorious nighttime party strip.

It's SoHo, long considered the more upscale part of town.

Police don't consider SoHo, or S Howard Avenue, to be a high-crime area, but they have upped patrols in recent years to quell drunken driving, car break-ins and vandalism. They constantly issue parking tickets. Last year, they noticed an increase in assaults.

Neighbors say the charm of S Howard's quaint commercial strip is fading. They fear the control that bar owners seem to wield in the area.

And they contend that city officials have allowed too many bars and not enough boutiques.

The city has no master plan for SoHo, and no one in particular appears to have a vision for one of the city's most high-profile destination spots. That, residents say, leaves the heart of the neighborhood vulnerable to whatever business owner or developer takes it over first.

• • •

After a long midcentury stretch of neglect and urban blight, S Howard's potential took shape late in the 1990s.

Its eclectic, old-fashioned character attracted young urban professionals and small business owners looking to get away from suburbia and chain retail. Every kind of restaurant from the pricey Bern's Steak House to the quaint Old Meeting House diner made up what some referred to as "restaurant row." Funky boutiques and salons filled in the rest. It was lovingly dubbed SoHo; Its identity had arrived.

But 10 years later, Tampa police consider SoHo an "entertainment district" where patrons barely above college age flock to drink specials and loud music.

Tommy Ortiz owns several of the area's hottest spots. He got his start in the area in his 20s, working as a janitor and busboy at an old bar.

Today the 38-year-old entrepreneur, with his black curly ponytail and signature bandana, is often seen working at one of his trendy nightlife ventures, including Hyde Park Cafe, Cheap and SoHo Tavern.

At least one of those places, Hyde Park Cafe, has been in the news. There, police Tasered Tampa Bay Rays reliever Al Reyes in April, saying he was drunk and unruly. And former American Idol contestant Jessica Sierra was accused of throwing a cocktail glass at a patron's head last year and having cocaine in her purse.

Ortiz knows area residents don't like the crowds, but feels he brought life to an otherwise ordinary commercial strip.

"This whole dream is what I've been living," he said of his success. "I'm only chasing what I've been dreaming for 20 years."

He has bumped heads with several smaller business owners, including a pub owner battling with Ortiz in court over a lease agreement. Earlier this year, Ortiz evicted the popular Sangria's Tapas Bar and Restaurant, to neighbors' chagrin.

But he's not the only businessman to irk the community.

Barry O'Connor owns the popular Irish pub MacDinton's. When it reaches capacity of more than 700, folks line up around the building and wait for customers to leave so they can go in.

At an emotionally charged public meeting in August, several homeowners complained of parking problems caused by busy bars. But Ortiz and O'Connor said they encourage patrons to use the valet and off-site parking that they offer.

"It's not like we're not trying," O'Connor said recently.

For some, living in SoHo has become unbearable.

"In some ways, it's worse than Ybor," said Randy Zalis, who has owned a home here for three years. "Ybor's been what it is for a hundred years. We've had to sit and watch SoHo go from being a beautiful, quiet neighborhood to what it's become now."

• • •

Police acknowledge that some crimes have increased in SoHo, but statistics don't support perceptions that it's as rowdy as Ybor.

From 2004 through 2007, Hyde Park Cafe, MacDinton's and Ortiz's Whiskey Park Soho had 36 reports of fighting combined. In Ybor, by comparison, the wild Club Fuel had 42 reported fights alone during the same time.

Hyde Park Cafe and Whiskey Park each had two drug-related calls during those three years, compared to Club Fuel's 65.

But assaults and batteries were problematic for at least one club. Police responded to 18 such calls at Whiskey Park in 2007; twice as many as Club Fuel had that year. Both places are now closed.

Police can only do so much to keep SoHo calm, Capt. Sal Ruggerio said. To dissuade people from bringing so many cars into the area, they issue parking tickets.

"But for a lot of people," Ruggerio said, "that $30 ticket is just part of the cost of going out."

• • •

Everyone seems to agree that SoHo is in a precarious phase.

"It has the opportunity to go in a real positive direction with more restaurants and coffee shops and places like that," City Council member John Dingfelder said. "But at the same time, the surrounding neighborhoods are very concerned that it could tip in the other direction."

Entrepreneurs can't be blamed for wanting to expand their success, he said, though the city did recently turn down a bar-restaurant's request to stay open past midnight.

"I'd love to see more bookstores and things like that," Dingfelder said, adding that the city can't force those types of businesses to move to SoHo.

Sandra Rossiter, whose Ray­diance Tanning business used to be in the same building as Cheap, remembers a different SoHo when her salon opened in the late '90s. She was forced out by Ortiz over lease issues last year, she said, and has since watched the neighborhood degenerate from a "cute, European-type feel" to a wild and obnoxious strip.

"The face of SoHo is changing," Rossiter said. "The question is: Whose face is it going to be?"

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

SoHo's party scene gaining reputation with police, neighbors 09/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 3:33pm]

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