OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — The figurative dam that has been holding back the commercial revitalization of some of Tampa's urban neighborhoods could soon suffer a crack.
City officials are planning to use Seminole Heights as the city's first test lab for a relatively new concept called "form-based" code, an initiative that some hope will loosen restrictions and attract new businesses.
Form-based codes are more about how much physical buildings are altered and how that affects the aesthetics of neighborhoods. How the property will be used — as a restaurant, retail business, a home — becomes a secondary issue.
The concept has been implemented nationwide, including in Sarasota. Architects, urban planners and land use experts study it at Form-Based Codes Institute in Geneva, Wis.
It's a dynamic any number of beleaguered and would-be entrepreneurs in Seminole Heights know all too well.
Under the current "use-based" zoning system, changing the use of the property — from a car lot to a restaurant on Florida Avenue, for instance — can trigger an avalanche of fees, construction requirements and restrictions.
It has scared off many would-be business owners from Seminole Heights, and made those who persevered wonder why at times.
"It probably would have prevented us from ever opening," Cappy's Pizzeria co-owner Scooter Gabel said of the "plethora of issues" he and his wife, Natalie, had to negotiate with the city shortly after opening in 2006.
The business didn't meet certain city codes, including parking, and had to have its land use designation changed. Gabel said the process was expensive and took nearly a year.
Form-based code would make issues such as meeting parking requirements, which are usually more feasible in roomier suburban settings, less of an issue.
"Those strip cores that you have on Nebraska and Florida avenues, they don't have the available parking that our current code requires," said Gloria Moreda, manager of land development coordination for the city. "All the current codes just make it really difficult for redevelopment."
Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association president Susan Long has interceded for years on behalf of would-be entrepreneurs, working with city officials to get rules or fees waived. She's been trying to get a Cakes Plus bakery and wedding supply business to open at 6508 N Florida Ave. for a year and a half. "The land (the business owners) have purchased is unusable" under current zoning rules, Long said.
In the short-term, she said, form-based zoning "will enable us to have businesses come into the neighborhood without the major hassles they've had."
In the long term, Long said, "we could have a whole new world."
That's because community comment is a major factor in shaping form-based code. Preliminary meetings held with Seminole Heights residents and city officials have yielded ideas such as turning a segment of East Idlewild Avenue into a pedestrian and bicycle-only street, or transforming residential streets that skirt Interstate 275 into small business zones.
More community meetings are planned, with the next one taking place Tuesday at the Seminole Heights Garden Center. A series of open houses with government officials will be there April 21-24 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Moreda encourages home and business owners to show up and contribute ideas. "We want to try to get a sense of what their vision for their neighborhood is, and then we'll try to draft a code to get their vision into reality."
City zoning administrator Catherine Coyle said the City Council could review the preliminary form-based code for Seminole Heights in October or November, with official adoption occurring perhaps by January 2010.
Hopefully the changes won't be too late. Nina Torres, co-owner of Cakes Plus, doesn't know how much longer she can wade through the red tape. "I never thought it was going to be like this," she said. "It's unbelievable I have to wait a year and a half."