TAMPA — When it rains in South Tampa, things get messy.
Nowhere is that truer than on a brick-paved street off Bayshore Boulevard, several blocks north of Gandy Boulevard. It was once the bottom of a lake.
City officials and neighbors gathered Wednesday morning at the street's lowest point to check out an innovative solution for the flood-prone area: a bungalow-style "house" that hides a stormwater pump station.
Neighbors stood on the front lawn at 2921 W Alline Ave. with fresh sod and three oak trees, smiling and pointing out the chimney.
The Alline Avenue Pump Station cost the city $4.8 million and is the first specifically built to blend into a neighborhood.
"We're fighting Mother Nature with technology," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
Water pumped from the house will run through a filter and return clean to Hillsborough Bay, Buckhorn said. Gates will keep sea creatures like manatees from entering the drain.
He said a fix for flooding in all of Tampa's low-lying areas would take billions of dollars, but this spot was especially bad because water came and stayed.
Neighbors lingered on the front porch, joking about block parties inside in a room lined with electrical panels and pranks on kids expecting candy at Halloween.
Outside, a plaque on a pillar by the steps commemorates Pete Tagliarini, the architect who designed the structure. He died last month.
It was his challenge to come up with a design that the neighborhood would approve and would still meet engineering requirements, said Deborah Kerr Tagliarini, his widow.
A variance from the City Council allowed the pump house to go up in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
"He'd have been thrilled," she said, after seeing the final project.
Costs to disguise the building weren't itemized. David Vaughn, Tampa's contracts administration director, said his best guess would be about 0.5 percent of the total price tag.
Inside, neighbors peeked into a bathroom and walked around a huge generator. In the back yard, metal panels cover a wet well and three pumps, capable of moving 35 million gallons of water per day into the bay, according to plans.
Matthew Love, an engineer at McKim & Creed, part of the design team for the project, put that number into perspective: "It could empty my home swimming pool in 40 seconds," he said.
The pumps will drain water from an area bordered by Bayshore Boulevard, MacDill, Chapin and Coachman avenues, a neighborhood developed in the late 1930s.
In 2007, the city bought the property, which sits 4 feet above sea level, for $325,000.
"It was the lowest property in the area," Love said. "It was definitely the right pick."
The main floor of the building sits just above the 100-year flood plain, he said.
In the past, during high tides, saltwater seeped from the bay into the neighborhood.
One time during a big storm, a sewage lid popped off and sewage mixed with the floodwater, said Marty Paterno, whose house sits across from the station.
"It floods even with the slightest of rains," said Paterno, who has lived there 20 years. He has kayaked on the street.
Paterno said he took a picture each day of the construction, which started in June 2011. He thinks the pump station will raise his property value.
Mimi Wills moved next door to the station in September.
With the first rain, she sat on her porch and watched the water rise. Her garage flooded and she second-guessed her purchase.
"I had waterfront property on both sides," she said. "A river in the front and my back yard was a lake."
But now, she says, the pump station looks nicer than her house and she expects to own the driest lot in South Tampa.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.