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Tampa Heights businesses operate on the funky fringe

Pass by Cafe Hey, and you can almost hear the people who called the owners crazy. A coffeehouse north of downtown? With al fresco seating?

Across the street, homeless men congregate under the Interstate 275 overpass. Just ahead, a barbed-wire fence gnarls around an empty lot.

This is where three friends decided to drop their savings — the ugly urban spine of Tampa Heights, where commercial development is nowhere near catching up with the neighborhood's residential restoration.

Many thought the area's commercial revival hinged on the mayor's $40-million Riverwalk or the $500-million housing development along the Hillsborough River. But none of that has taken shape yet. Instead, this is how the area is coming to life: organic, fair trade coffee and tea, open-mike nights, vegan shakes, gay karaoke, book clubs, raw food, acupuncture, art.

The crop of homegrown, alternative-minded businesses has sprouted in the past few years. Little by little, the transformation has begun.

Why they came

The business owners had their reasons for moving here. Some saw a place they could afford, with big buildings they couldn't find anywhere else. Some liked being just north of downtown. Others liked the history and grit.

Natalie Maddox, an acupuncturist who practiced in SoHo, wanted a place of her own. She turned down properties in South Tampa. Not a spa, she insisted. She wanted a cozy atmosphere and found it in a Victorian house at 400 E Palm Ave.

"It wasn't so much about the location as it was about the history of the place and the beauty of the space I was going to occupy," Maddox said.

The Palm Wellness Center opened this month.

New Yorkers Sabrina Aird and Spencer Sterling initially looked at spaces from Carrollwood to Brandon to open their vegan and raw restaurant.

"They were all just a little too clean, too sanitary and sanitized and boring," Aird said.

So they found a building in their own neighborhood, on Florida Avenue.

"It was dark and dirty, just a big empty space of scariness," she said. But the couple saw "what it could be." Six months later, in 2006, the Grass Root opened.

For $275,000 in 1997, Robbie Morito bought an old, 16,000-square-foot electrical workers union building at 1701 N Franklin St. Now, it's Club Chambers, the first of three gay clubs in Tampa Heights.

Morito later opened Azalea Lounge and sold it more than two years ago. He and his brother Anthony Morito opened a third gay club, Boxxxers, six months ago on Tampa Street. General manager John Hansen said that because of the location, the building's overhead is low, so the bar can offer cheap drink specials.

Erika Greenberg-Schneider found a 4,200-square-foot building on 12,000 square feet of land at 109 W Columbus Drive for $110,000. In 2003, she turned it into Bleu Acier, an art gallery and printer. At the time, "there were some car lots, no restaurants," Greenberg-Schneider remembers. "It's nice to see all these other places open."


During a recent lunch hour, a handful of people sat in the Grass Root. Some ate spaghetti with noodles made of zucchini for $13.50 or vegan ramen noodle soup for $7. Juices ranged from $7 to $8, with ingredients like hemp milk and bee pollen.

Suddenly, a tall transvestite walked in with a jug of gasoline and stood looking bewildered. Diners stopped chatting and turned around. The transvestite turned and walked away.

For those few seconds, despite the trickling water fountain and bright orange walls covered in African artifacts, customers remembered where they were — just a few blocks from the Salvation Army and Metropolitan Ministries, in a neighborhood where homeless people constantly ask for food, water or money.

Aird tells them to come at the end of the day, and not to make begging a habit. "This is not your mother's kitchen," she says.

She defends her neighborhood to people who tell her to move, but wishes the city didn't allow so many halfway houses and shelters here.

"It's nice to be on the underground side," she said, "but I just don't want people to be afraid."

Cafe Hey co-owner Anne Vela hasn't had a problem with the homeless. She says some of them have laptops and buy drinks to take advantage of the free wireless access.

"The homeless people are some of my best clients," she said.

The evolution

Vela and her husband, Chris, met up with Cheong Choi three years ago. Choi had an eye on the Franklin Avenue space next door to his parents' Oceanic Oriental Supermarket, separated from downtown only by the interstate.

"I wanted someplace that served relatively healthy food," Choi said. "This neighborhood is really lacking in that alternative."

Chris, the architect, Choi, the bookkeeper, and Anne, the cook, restored Cafe Hey and opened it in October. They started out selling coffee, baked goods and a few sandwiches but picked up on customers' requests.

These days, the cafe is a microcosm of what Tampa Heights is and what it's becoming.

The lunch crowd swells with lawyers and students from Stetson law school on Tampa Street. Law offices are pouring into the neighborhood, including the Bush Ross law firm, which opened in January.

The Hillsborough Bar Association is building its new 17,000-square-foot home nearby.

Shannon Edge, the city director of neighborhood and community relations, whose office is in Tampa Heights, says she can finally walk somewhere for a cup of coffee.

"I really want to see these small businesses survive," Edge says.

New condos haven't lived up to the mayor's vision of a residential downtown yet. But when Edge watches neighbors ride their bikes to Cafe Hey, she sees a future with people living, working and playing in the community.

In making that vision work, Edge says "the mom-and-pops are the meat and the potatoes."

Small businesses like to weigh in on what's to come for Tampa Heights. "Almost a bigger downtown version of Channelside, with mixed residential, businesses, nightclubs and restaurants," said Hansen, the manager of Boxxxers, the gay club.

But Aird, of the Grass Root, says: "I would always want it to be just the type of neighborhood that it is."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Tampa Heights businesses operate on the funky fringe 03/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 3:24pm]
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