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Millions in 22nd Street improvements give east Tampa 'a new front door'

Mayor Bob Buckhorn talks about east Tampa improvements at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting for a $5.6 million project on 22nd Street that includes a traffic roundabout near 22nd Avenue.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Mayor Bob Buckhorn talks about east Tampa improvements at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting for a $5.6 million project on 22nd Street that includes a traffic roundabout near 22nd Avenue.

TAMPA — Cynthia Few remembers 22nd Street first as a dirt road and later as the entryway to block after block of public housing — battered cinder-block apartments with bare-dirt courtyards.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn remembers the street swarming with drug dealers and the nearby bar with so many fights people called it the "Bucket of Blood."

Both are happier with what 22nd Street has become, and they say the $5.6 million in street improvements celebrated at a ceremony Wednesday are as good a symbol as any of a neighborhood reclaimed both by its residents and the city at large.

"We remember what this community looked like, and it was wrong," Buckhorn said.

The centerpiece of the latest set of improvements is a traffic roundabout on 22nd Street near 22nd Avenue. It's designed to move traffic on 22nd Street more smoothly and to create a sense of place. It has a monumental look, with an obelisk at its center, brick-patterned crosswalks and — an especially welcome touch — landscaping, with flowering trees, creeping jasmine and bright yellow lantana.

"A new front door for east Tampa," said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's administrator for economic opportunity.

"This will bring our neighborhoods closer together," said Few, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Crime Watch and Association.

The latest set of improvements along 22nd Street are several years in the making, but efforts to remake the College Hill area go back at least 15 years.

In 1987, the area around the College Hill Homes and Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complexes erupted in rock- and bottle-throwing for three days after a police officer tried to subdue a mentally ill man with a neck hold and accidentally killed him.

A decade later, Tampa housing officials used a $32.5 million federal HOPE VI grant to tear down the slum and replace it with a more mixed neighborhood of working-class and middle-income residents.

The plan included giving about a quarter of the residents in the old complexes rental vouchers to move elsewhere, partly to reduce the density of the community.

Today, the old apartment blocks have given way to Belmont Heights Estates, which has a more suburban feel. Curving streets are lined with Victorian-style street lamps. Duplexes built to look like bungalows have shaded front porches trimmed with crotons and philodendrons.

The improvements to 22nd Street were paid for with money from the Florida Department of Transportation and property taxes generated by new development within east Tampa itself.

That said, not everyone welcomed the roundabout, especially at first. Skeptics didn't want something like the two-lane roundabouts that had proved so tricky on 40th Street.

The 22nd Street project, with a single lane, should be easier to navigate, said City Council member Frank Reddick, who worked on the project as a member of the East Tampa Partnership.

"If you can understand what a 'Yield' sign means, you can travel this roundabout with no problems," Reddick said.

The project also brought other upgrades to 22nd Street south from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard: more sidewalks, better crosswalks and street lights, new water and sewer lines and a 10-foot-wide trail alongside the road.

The first phase was finished in 2011. The final two phases cost $3.1 million.

But it should not be the end, said Buckhorn, who cut ribbons on two new east Tampa businesses last week. The city owns a couple of parcels in the area it would like to develop. He wants to see more retail, and maybe a grocery store, along the corridor.

"The building blocks are there," he said. "It's safe. It's a much better environment, certainly, than it was when I started. … The roundabout is just a bricks and mortar symbol of the progress that's been made."

It's also a symbol of something else, Few said.

"It shows we're not forgotten," she said. "We're included in the bigger vision."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com and @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Millions in 22nd Street improvements give east Tampa 'a new front door' 09/04/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 11:15pm]
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