TAMPA — Sometimes so many people cram themselves into the council chambers at Old City Hall that the temperature of the room starts to rise.
That happened this week when about 100 residents from Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights turned out to turn up the heat on a planned highway project they want to block.
The Interstate 275 expansion and toll lane project would destroy the Tampa Heights Community Center and community garden — both located on property owned by and leased from the Florida Department of Transportation.
"We need to know that the city government has our back, because this amounts to a direct attack on our city by the state government," Cole Bellamy of Seminole Heights told the City Council. "This stands to drive people from their homes, drive people from their businesses, chop up communities, re-open old wounds."
That message got through.
"This project is not good for the neighborhood," said council member Mike Suarez, who along with Lisa Montelione, made several proposals to block funding for or to give the city leverage over the project. Moving forward now on a plan written in the 1990s, he said, would make "no sense to me or anybody else in this room."
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson said Friday that although the interstate project would mean tearing down the old red-brick church building that's home to the new community center, the state is committed to working with the neighborhood to try to resolve its concerns. Among other things, the FDOT has committed to providing land for a community garden and a landscaped greenway to buffer the neighborhood from the highway.
"We know there's angst in that community with that change," she said. "We have to solve the traffic congestion problems. We want to do that in a manner that the community is satisfied with as well."
In the meantime, the City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to ask the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization to withdraw support for funding the FDOT project and to reach out to local legislators, especially state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate's Transportation Committee. It voted to try to make sure it plays an active role in reviewing the project's plans, which were drafted in the mid-1990s. It asked city lawyers to report on June 25 whether the city could challenge the project under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
And it advised opponents — about 50 of whom also showed up Friday at a meeting of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — to lobby state legislators who approve the FDOT budget.
"If they don't have money, they don't have any way of doing this project, and that's one of the ways we can try and stop this," Suarez told residents.
The $2 billion project entails adding tolled express lanes to I-275 and rebuilding two interchanges to eliminate major "choke points" — one at I-275's downtown interchange and one at State Road 60 where northbound traffic comes off the Howard Frankland Bridge on its way into Tampa.
The FDOT recently told Tampa Heights residents that the community center could be bulldozed in the next few years for the project.
That stunned residents who have spent five years and $1 million transforming the former Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church into a community center offering cooking and computer classes to teens.
"We are all working toward a future that very suddenly has seemed to have escaped us completely," said Leslie Paredes, president and co-founder of the Heights Collective, a community organization that encompasses Tampa Heights and other neighborhoods.
Residents have said they understood that the project's impact on the community center was likely decades away. In 2010, FDOT signed a 25-year lease with the city of Tampa so church property could be used as a community center and green space. City Hall, in turn, leased the church to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association.
But Carson said the state's lease was for temporary use and that the lease called for the community to notify the state in advance if it planned to make changes to the building.
That didn't happen, she said.
"We would have told them not to spend the money that they did on a building that they did not own," she said. The improvements are "beautiful," she said, but "we had no clue" they were being done until FDOT staff went to the community center for a meeting.
Currently, the state has not appropriated money for construction of the I-275 project. The FDOT has said work could start within five years — if it gets funding. If doesn't, it could take longer.
The agency is going to re-evaluate the plan to determine how much has changed since it was drafted. That study is expected to be complete next summer. Carson said the state has always planned to work with the city on that review.
Along the way, the state also plans to hold community meetings about the project.
"We're hoping that we can find a solution," Carson said. "We don't know what that is yet."