TAMPA — Clarence Jones grew up in the old Central Park Village public housing complex and remembers the place as it fell apart: the battered cinderblock apartments painted a toothpaste green, the fights, the shootings.
So Jones, 24, couldn't miss the contrast Wednesday as he toured the seven-story Ella, the first of five new apartment buildings that will replace Central Park Village. It was especially stark as he stepped onto the recreation deck, built atop the Ella's private parking garage, and saw the shuffleboard court, swimming pool and palm trees surrounded by red and green crotons.
"I can't believe I'm still in Tampa," he said.
It was a day for that kind of moment. With the Ella, the first building in an ambitious downtown redevelopment called Encore Tampa, officials turned the page on a new chapter for one of Tampa's most storied black neighborhoods.
The history of the place goes back to the late 1800s, when freed slaves settled north of downtown Tampa and west of what would become Ybor City.
By the early 1900s, the area had grown into a jumble of wood shacks known as the Scrub.
By the 1950s, the community had blossomed into Tampa's Harlem. Cab Calloway played the Apollo Ballroom. Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, James Brown, B.B. King — all performed on Central Avenue. After seeing some Central Avenue kids dancing, Hank Ballard wrote The Twist, which Chubby Checker turned into a national craze.
But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the construction of Interstate 275, the destructive policies of urban renewal and several days of rioting after the police shooting of a 19-year-old black man had hollowed out the cultural core of the area.
For decades after, much of what remained were Central Park Village's apartments, with their ugly green paint.
In 2007, the Tampa Housing Authority demolished the 483 apartments at Central Park Village to make way for Encore, a public-private venture being co-developed by the housing authority and the Bank of America Community Development Corp. Encore's financing comes from a long list of sources, including President Barack Obama's stimulus program, which kicked in $28 million for infrastructure development.
When finished, the 28-acre Encore is expected to include 794 mixed-income apartments, 300 condominiums or other privately owned units sold at market rates and 268,000 square feet of offices and stores, including a hotel, museum, school and grocery store. The value of the new construction could approach $425 million.
Officials hope Encore attracts a broad range of residents interested in city living, but they say poor people from Central Park Village will have a shot, too.
Over the past 14 years, the housing authority has torn down and redeveloped 2,200 units of public housing in Tampa. In every project, officials say, they give residents a guaranteed right to return to the new community as long as they don't break their leases in the meantime.
So at Central Park Village, the housing authority relocated 444 households to make way for demolition. As of last week, nearly 300 of those households were still eligible to return.
Meanwhile, Encore has faced challenges of its own: delays caused by a court case over financing that went to the Florida Supreme Court, funding challenges and the Great Recession.
"The bottom line is we do exactly what we say we're going to do," Tampa Housing Authority CEO Jerome Ryans said at a ceremony marking the Ella's completion. "Our goal was to come back here regardless of the circumstances, regardless of all the issues we had to deal with, and make this a viable project."
The $26 million Ella building, named for Ella Fitzgerald, is one of two Encore buildings for seniors 62 and older. It has 160 one- and two-bedroom apartments, plus a fitness center, game room, library and theater with a huge flat-screen TV and couches for about 25 people. The ground floor also includes space for restaurants and shops.
Less visible are some of the Ella's energy-saving features, from its light fixtures to its storm windows. Like all the buildings in Encore, it will get chilled water for its air-conditioning from a centralized chiller plant that will eliminate rooftop air conditioners and make room for solar or other renewable energy options.
Mildred Allen, 90, lived in Central Park Village for more than 50 years before it was torn down, and she plans to move to the Ella when the apartments open in coming weeks.
"It's beautiful," she said during an apartment tour Wednesday. "I like everything I've seen so far."
There's more coming. This month, the housing authority broke ground on another Encore apartment building, the Trio. Next week, it will break ground on a third, the Reed.
Simultaneously, the authority is preparing for a similar makeover across the Hillsborough River at its oldest public housing complex, North Boulevard Homes. The authority's board last month voted to hire a private development team to help plan the demolition and redevelopment.
North Boulevard Homes was built in 1941 and is home to 1,700 people in 821 apartments. Officials say they're at least two to three years from relocating anyone from North Boulevard Homes.
But the agency doesn't plan to stop there.
"We've got one more at Robles Park," a 436-unit Central Tampa complex built in 1953, Ryans said. "We will be tearing down Robles Park, too. That's a commitment."