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Extend Bayshore's sidewalk? Not in my front yard, says a lover of logic and beauty

TAMPA — The public owns the land in front of Harry E. Teasley Jr.'s iron fence on Bayshore Boulevard. His palms and junipers huddle there in formation, cloaking him in privacy.

Sidewalks bear down from the north and south, but end at his lot line. After years of city construction to make Bayshore safer, Teasley's is the only mansion without a public walkway.

No one can pause to sneak a peek of him sipping Earl Grey in the historic Stovall House, which Teasley rescued from decay.

Instead, pedestrians must choose how to avoid the prickle of his exuberant landscaping, also thick with shrubs: Turn around. Exit Bayshore. Cross to the median. Some walk along the curb, braving traffic that defies the 40 mph speed limit.

The retired Coca-Cola executive's land occupies a city block, and he pays more property taxes than many people earn in a year.

The city could spring for a sidewalk, no? How would that strike him?

"I would sue the city," said Teasley, 74.

That has been his position for five years. One might assume he's indifferent to the concerns of those who walk along Bayshore's quiet upper trail. But he thinks the concerns, and the sidewalks, are misplaced.

When Teasley looks at his intact landscaping, he is reminded of a man who expresses citizenship by scrutinizing ideas and accepting nothing blithely, not even concrete.

Outside the fence, people miss this nuance. They are watching the grillwork of oncoming cars.

The push for sidewalks began eight years ago, when a jogger died. Her name was Melissa McKenzie. A speeding motorcyclist went to prison.

Her death was not the first on the iconic road that serves as both linear park and thoroughfare, linking MacDill Air Force Base to downtown Tampa and the city's most elegant homes.

The mayor, then Pam Iorio, named a task force on Bayshore traffic safety, and its members issued 37 recommendations.

No. 1: sidewalks.

Though legendary along the balustrade, they existed only intermittently on the green side.

Bayshore homeowners protested. Some worried about strangers traipsing through their yards. Their objections were no match for the uproar that had followed the crash.

Vicki Pollyea, 55, who served on the task force, recalls replying: "If you didn't want people walking in front of your house, maybe you shouldn't have purchased a home on Bayshore."

At the end of 2004, Iorio set aside $200,000 for the first phase, which would connect sidewalks between Howard Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard.

The 9-foot-deep, 255-foot-wide right of way in front of Teasley's property to the south was not yet in play.

• • •

He came to Tampa with his wife, Linda, in 1991 to start a new Coca-Cola venture, nearing the end of a 35-year career.

He had been president and CEO of both the juice division, Coca-Cola Foods and the wine subsidiary, the Wine Spectrum. In 1969, he developed a method called life cycle analysis, a way to measure the true cost and impact of packaging. The company was flirting with plastic bottles. Teasley found that plastic used less hydrocarbon resources than did glass, because of the extreme temperatures required for glass.

For a home, the Teasleys chose the 1909 Stovall House, named for newspaper publisher Wallace Stovall. It was on the National Register of Historic Places. The property appraiser values the residence, with its guesthouse, greenhouse and pool house, at about $2.6 million.

Teasley learned about a city program that encouraged homeowners to plant palms.

They were sabal palms, common enough to have been named the state tree. He paid for them, he recalls, and the city planted them on the right of way in 1992.

In those years, the home was visible to passers-by. That would change as a wall of landscaping took shape around it.

Tampa came to know Teasley for his libertarian politics, most conspicuously in 1996, when he retired from Coca-Cola and took over the chairmanship of the Reason Foundation, and later in a series of challenges to public policy that tackled everything from desalination to light rail.

He rattled political candidates with long lists of questions. Are your mental models sufficiently structured, understood and internalized that you can quickly respond to questions and pursue debate even in areas where you may not have specific knowledge of circumstance? Will you crumple and collapse under stress?

He has a voice born in Hartwell, Ga. His sentences begin by sounding like a scolding and end on a softer decibel reminiscent of Southern graciousness.

He's an imposing man, even when he smiles, ruddy faced, with an air of self-power that might hastily be interpreted as arrogance. His Myers-Briggs personality type is an "extreme INTJ," he says, among the least common of 16 types, naturally skeptical, analytical, introverted and intensely self-confident.

"Harry can be very intimidating," said Sandra Freedman, 68, who once broke gender barriers to become Tampa's mayor.

Under her watch, the palms went into the right of way. She doesn't remember Teasley's plantings, but she remembers the program.

• • •

It was 2007 when Teasley got word that the sidewalk project was headed his way.

He hired a lawyer, Gina Grimes, a former assistant city attorney. Together, they wrote to the City Council.

The city had jurisdiction. Though Bayshore's driving surface is a county road, its green spaces are city maintained.

Teasley contended that his sabal palms constituted an "agreement" with the city. He spends at least $2,000 a year to prune them.

"He really does have some significant landscaping," former council member Linda Saul-Sena said recently. "But I think you have to weigh private good vs. public good."

In the end, the city built sidewalks all around him, everywhere except at Harbour House condos, where at least a path is etched into the grass.

Teasley got his way.

• • •

Five years have passed, but Iorio remembers why the city went along with him.

She described it in an email, which a reporter read to Teasley.

Well, if it gets into litigation ... Iorio wrote.

"It would have," Teasley interjected. "I had a case, and I would have put it into litigation."

... and he can demonstrate that the city asked him to put the landscaping in ...

"She's wrong about that part, but the city participated."

... and now it is being torn out, and the taxpayers have to pay the cost of litigation...

"She's exactly right. They would have lost the case."

... and possibly damages for the landscaping ...

"That's right."

... then it becomes a cost factor that has to be taken into consideration.

"By the way," said Teasley, "the sidewalk was a cost factor."

• • •

He guesses at the number of moments in his life that shaped him. Thousands. More.

Most recently, the loss of his wife Linda, who died March 4, 2008, of ovarian cancer. They had hoped to toast to the 100th anniversary of the Stovall House.

Long ago, from age 5, the death of his father and grandfather. The search for role models. Moving to Orlando. Working at Publix as a teen, hearing founder George W. Jenkins express shame over dented cans.

Bridge games with a grandmother who would not let him grouse. Conversations, books. No college history or philosophy courses. He preferred business law. The sanctity of contracts.

He's a Georgia Tech industrial engineer by training; a midlife Harvard management student; an amateur economist, self-taught. Things need to make sense to him. It's not his nature to go with the flow.

He shares wealth if it fits his formula for giving, favoring scholars over black-tie galas. He gave $2.5 million to Georgia Tech for a chair in environmental biology. His wife's illness led to a chair in oncology in Tampa.

Though he lives on Bayshore, he uses a treadmill to exercise, because it's efficient.

He sees no loss in that.

He has the lily pond and topiary garden, seasons of flowers.

"Walk into my property and see if I live a sad life," he said. "I live an aesthetically pleasing life. It doesn't matter where you stand. You can turn 360 degrees and you will see beauty; aesthetic, soul-pleasing beauty."

He sees the bay from upstairs, over the tops of the palms.

"I don't have to go to Bayshore to walk on Bayshore."

• • •

If he did, they would tell him that his side is the safe side.

The water side gets too busy, said former Mayor Freedman.

"Between the bikers and skaters and runners and baby carriages, you have to cling to the balustrade," she said.

Everyone knows Teasley's bushes, even if they don't know Teasley.

"There's a thin strip of grass but it's kind of at a slight angle," said Mike O'Brien, 46, a marketing executive who walks that side of Bayshore.

"You always feel like you're going to fall in the street," said Norman Jacoby, 64, a derivatives specialist. On a recent Sunday, out with his wife, he walked lopsided with one foot in the road.

Andrea Augustine, who has a daughter not yet 2, cuts over to the water when she nears Teasley's house. She's president of the Bayshore Beautiful Homeowner's Association.

Teasley doesn't expect people to walk in the street. He says they should walk between his junipers and palms.

"You would never walk in the street," he said, a little aghast.

"You shouldn't dart out. You need to be careful."

• • •

He thinks the sidewalks were a waste of money. In his view, the unenforced speed limit is the problem.

"I don't feel that I have been derelict in my civic responsibility in any way on this sidewalk."

He sees no reason to change his mind.

It wouldn't matter if he did. No one can afford a sidewalk anyway. It's not in the city budget this year.

"You would have to rip up all that landscaping," Teasley said, "and it would not do anything that's wonderful. If I put a sidewalk in front of my house, how would the world be better?"

He remembers something his new wife, Anna, says: that only canned sardines can't change their minds.

That tickles him, but only for a moment.

Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or pryan@tampabay.com.

Extend Bayshore's sidewalk? Not in my front yard, says a lover of logic and beauty 02/11/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 3:12pm]

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