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Tampa's Oaks at Riverview is a public housing turnaround

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS

When Ernesto Benitez moved to Oaks at Riverview last January, he was concerned about crime there: break-ins, vandalism, the occasional drug deal.

He knew the problems were a far cry from the neighborhood's previous incarnation — Riverview Terrace. The notorious public housing project in Old Seminole Heights was demolished in 2003 and rebuilt as a mixed-use and mixed-income community.

But Benitez was still worried. So a few months after moving in, he started what police say is one of the most active crime watch programs in Tampa.

In the beginning, he and other residents cruised the neighborhood nearly every day, alerting police about any unsavory situation. Their methods worked. Now, they patrol a couple of times a month.

The biggest problem they see these days? Unsupervised children at a small park near his house.

Even that problem might subside, thanks to the newly opened community center that offers after-school tutoring and other activities.

"It's calmed down completely," Benitez said. "This is actually one of the better neighborhoods. And we're going to make it even better. Our goal is to make it as good as Hyde Park."

• • •

Born from a $19.9 million federal HOPE VI grant, the 24-acre site is located roughly from Broad Street north to Hanlon Street and from Florida Avenue east to Central Avenue. It welcomed its first residents in 2005. Construction on the last home finished in March.

The mid-rise apartment buildings, bungalow-style houses and extensive oak trees help the neighborhood blend in with the surrounding Old Seminole Heights. The community includes 250 rental units, 76 of which are set-aside for seniors. There are also 96 single-family homes and townhouses, a mix of subsidized and market-rate properties.

At nearly 30 percent, the number of homeowners compared to renters is much higher at Oaks at Riverview than at other Tampa housing projects.

But neighborhood leaders are working to bridge division between the two groups.

"We're going through a lot of that melting that happens in any sort of mixed-use community," said Leroy Moore, chief operating officer for the Tampa Housing Authority, which manages the public and Section 8 units at the property.

Take the structure of the neighborhood's community associations. One association only serves homeowners, while a separate board created by the housing authority includes both homeowners and renters.

Michael Spero, who sits on both boards, said he hopes to combine the two entities at some point — a move still several months away. It will give residents one place to go for dues, concerns and community events.

"We're a new community starting out," he said. "We're having some difficulty in getting more of the homeowners involved."

•••

The 12,000-square-foot community center opened in August on E Kirby Street. It's a hit among residents. Almost 350 kids come through the center each week for after-school tutoring, games and other activities.

"They couldn't wait for it to open," said Johannie Gutierrez, 31, whose two kids attend the center after school. "Instead of them being out there getting into trouble, they've got somewhere to go."

The center includes a computer room, game room and a 30-seat movie theater that shows DVDs. Students also receive FCAT tutoring and spend time playing at nearby Riverview Park.

In this neighborhood, "how many kids can go to the arcade on a daily basis, or even get on the computer?" community center director Kevin Knox said. "This is something they can call their own."

Hoping to alleviate problems with unsupervised children, Benitez is leading an effort to remove a small park on Riverdale Avenue that has been a magnet for vandalism, littering and rowdy teen activity.

Park equipment has been replaced several times, to the tune of more than $6,000 in housing authority funds. Residents will vote today on whether to move the equipment to the more supervised Riverview Park.

• • •

Back in the Riverview Terrace days, Knox said, "this used to be one of the toughest neighborhoods around."

With a new slate of homes and only a fraction of returning residents, the neighborhood got a fresh start. And Tampa police neighborhood liaison Lisa Timmer credits the new crime watch program for keeping crime rates down.

"They were having some of the old seeds trying to take root," Timmer said. "Now, they call us even if someone is letting their dog poop on somebody's yard."

Through their frequent calls to police, crime watch volunteers act as a deterrent to potential criminals.

"They want no issues," Benitez said. "They're going to think twice because they know they're going to get a phone call (reporting them)."

Moore praised the crime watch volunteers, but said the program should include renters as well. Currently, only a small group of homeowners participate in the patrols.

"I've challenged him (Benitez) to reach out to the rental community," Moore said. "That's one of those tools that needs to be reflective of the whole community."

But the split between renters and homeowners is a minor quibble compared to the old days.

"I would not get an apartment here when it was the projects," said Gutierrez, who moved to Oaks at Riverview shortly after it opened four years ago. "Now I love it."

Staff writer Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3436 or llogan@sptimes.com.

Tampa's Oaks at Riverview is a public housing turnaround 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 4:30am]
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