Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

Tampa limits Jewish Community Center's use of Vila Brothers Park for overflow parking

TAMPA — Three more.

That's how many times City Hall is letting the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center use Vila Brothers Park for overflow parking.

City chief of staff Dennis Rogero sent a letter dated Thursday to the JCC saying it could use the open field at the West Tampa park "for one event per month between now and June 30."

After that, he said, "the City expects you to make alternative plans for overflow parking."

Also this week, city officials say the JCC has been cited for several code enforcement violations for putting up a large and unauthorized event tent on the grounds outside the its new $30 million facility at the old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

Officials said the 70,000-square foot tent, which is air-conditioned and wired for electricity:

• Was put up without a city permit.

• Increased the capacity of the JCC beyond what the City Council allowed when it rezoned the armory as a place of assembly.

• Is not allowed under the historic designation for the armory, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rogero told the City Council this week that the tent must be removed by April 18 or the city would proceed with further action. JCC chief operating officer of programs and services Heidi Shimberg said the JCC plans to continue use the tent for a "few" events previously scheduled, but will take it down in June, after which "it will never go back up again."

The JCC doesn't use the tent to increase the size of the crowds it can handle, Shimberg said, but has it so that event sponsors can, for example, have a bigger dance floor than the JCC can offer inside.

The JCC's attorney is working with the city on the code enforcement case, she said.

"It's been our desire from the beginning to be neighborly and to work with the city on solutions and we strive to continue to do so," Shimberg said.

The JCC opened on N Howard Avenue in December, and since March it has used Vila Brothers Park repeatedly for overflow parking during events, most of them charity fund-raisers. City officials had informally given the center permission to use the park for overflow parking, but have said they had no idea it would be needed so often.

"I love the facility," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in an email Thursday to a JCC supporter. "That being said, it is important that they not book events that surpass their availability to accommodate the parking. The adjoining park was never contemplated by the city to an overflow parking lot. … The park will remain a park, not a parking lot."

This week, neighbors in green T-shirts packed the City Council's chambers to demand action.

"This is a total dishonor to the Vila brothers — there's only three of us left — and to the community around that park," said Tony Vila, one of the seven brothers for whom the park was named in honor of their wide-ranging military service since World War II.

In 2013, the City Council approved a rezoning for the JCC's redevelopment of the armory and required the center to have only 229 parking spaces — less than half the 476 spaces the city code normally would have required.

At the time, JCC representatives told the council that the center would hold its big events at night, well after daytime users had gone home, and that crowds wouldn't be larger than 600. Moreover, they said they expected many of the attendees to arrive together in carpools and said they were making arrangements to provide valet parking.

Instead, partly because the A La Carte Event Pavilion in Town 'N Country has closed, the JCC has had a bigger demand for events than anyone expected. Events also have been held during the day and have drawn crowds of 700 or more.

"This has become a huge mess," City Council member Mike Suarez said. "No one has come to this with any clean hands. I mean, we had our role on City Council. … I don't think any of us that were here thought it was going to be this big of an impact on the neighborhood. I think we really need to work hard on trying to solve this."

At this point, the JCC has 27 more events for groups of 100 to 600 scheduled through the end of June. Shimberg said the JCC will keep its commitments to the nonprofits that have booked events there this spring and already is using privately owned parking lots to handle some of the overflow. That already has reduced the need for to send cars to Vila Brothers Park.

In the long run, Shimberg said, the JCC needs to continue to look for other solutions, because the owners of the private lots want to build on them.

For neighbors, the city's three-event limit is a compromise.

"If they're going to stop, I think we can live with that," said Sandy deDiego Sanchez, the president of the Armory Gardens Civic Association, which represents 600 families.

Of at least equal importance to the neighborhood, she said, is getting some improvements made at the bare-bones park, which now has a playground and basketball courts, but no bathrooms or running water.

Bathrooms should be a priority, council member Guido Maniscalco told city staff this week. A landscape architect with the parks and recreation department this week sent Sanchez a letter saying city officials plan to ask next year for funds to complete a master plan for the park, which would take a year. Construction funds would be requested in 2020 and 2022.

Residents want to see neighborhood improvements sooner than that.

"We want some clarity," Sanchez said. "Does that mean we wait another four years for running water and bathrooms? … Our main point right now is to get that park renovated so that more families can use it."

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or [email protected] Follow @Danielson_Times

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