Residents feel sidewalks, better lighting, more stores would aid safety

Shawn Hicks, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, stands on the corner of Sligh and Nebraska avenues where a CVS was hoped for. The City Council rejected it.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Shawn Hicks, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, stands on the corner of Sligh and Nebraska avenues where a CVS was hoped for. The City Council rejected it.

From College Hill to Seminole Heights, homeowners and neighborhood watch members have few complaints about police enforcement. They're happy crime has declined for the past seven years.

Many do, however, think another government agency needs to do a better job making their blocks safer: the city.

While police are busting up drug houses and pulling over drunken drivers, some say City Hall needs to build more sidewalks, erect more light posts and recruit more coffee shops and restaurants to their neighborhoods.

In short, more infrastructure and amenities — both of which are hard to come by during a recession. Still, such improvements have been shown to help decrease crime nationwide.

In Tampa, police Lt. Keith O'Connor said he spends much of his time at neighborhood watch meetings listening to complaints about speed bumps or stop signs covered with bushes. Those are the types of concerns that pop up these days.

In the Belmont Heights Estates complex within College Hill, neighborhood watch coordinator Mary Cochran wants better lighting in a nearby park and by the bank of mailboxes in her apartment complex.

Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association president Shawn Hicks said his neighborhood needs something police can't provide: Better sidewalks and new businesses. He's content with how police have shooed prostitutes off of Nebraska Avenue and closed down drug houses.

"I think we're at the point where the area itself needs to evolve one step up in that direction," Hicks said. "If the city could do one more thing for us, we have very few sidewalks in our neighborhood."

Sidewalks mean more people outside walking dogs, putting more eyes on their neighborhood. Restaurants and coffee shops would also make a huge difference, he said. Well-lit convenience stores at shadowy intersections would drive criminals to other corners, he said.

Recent studies agree.

"Our work and that of others has indeed found a connection between vacant and abandoned properties and crime," said University of Pennsylvania professor Charles C. Branas, who studies geography and public health and safety.

The National Crime Prevention Council says communities can reduce drug activity and related crime by improving lighting, slowing traffic, building fences, fixing signs, removing junk cars and planting sidewalks.

But improving blight and neighborhood design isn't easy these days. Tampa Public Works Administrator Steve Daignault said money for new streetlights and sidewalks is limited. However, the city tries to respond to safety concerns Tampa police bring up.

"We actually work with TPD, where they say we can have safer neighborhoods if we design things properly," he said. "So if they come in and recommend, 'we need lights here,' then we're going to try and put in lights there if it can make the area safer."

But not all sidewalks and streetlights in Tampa are the city's responsibility, making it complicated to address residents' concerns. For instance, the Florida Department of Transportation is responsible for Nebraska Avenue, a state road, Daignault said. New streetlights in places such as New Tampa may fall to developers because of building agreements.

And new businesses are at the mercy of the recession.

Their impact brightening up neighborhoods is evident in Seminole Heights. Hicks pointed to the difference Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe has had on Nebraska Avenue. The independent restaurant, which opened last year at 5119 N Nebraska Ave., stays open till 11 p.m. or midnight and features a giant wrap-around porch, which automatically detracts criminals and prostitutes from the street.

Ella's existence has made people feel safer, Hicks said, as has the opening of the nearby Independent pub at 5016 N Florida Ave., which features a worldly assortment of beers, a patio, wide-open garage doors facing the street and even later hours.

And, to some residents, officials made a mistake earlier this year when the City Council rejected a rezoning that would have paved the way for a CVS drugstore to open at the corner of Sligh and Nebraska avenues after design concerns were raised. People, including Hicks, felt that a brightly lit, 24-hour drugstore was exactly what the shadowy intersection needed.

"Anytime you have eyes on the street, especially when you have communities like Seminole Heights and Hyde Park and you have front porches, you give neighbors an opportunity to interact," said Susan Ajoc, chairwoman for Florida Design Out Crime Association and director for the city of St. Petersburg's Neighborhood Partnership. "From a criminal standpoint, they don't necessarily want to be in a place where citizens are engaged. They want to be in a place where citizens aren't going to pay much attention to them."

More neighborhood businesses would drive crime down further, said Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, who lives in Seminole Heights.

"If you have robust businesses along Nebraska Avenue, and you have people patronizing those businesses," she said, "you won't have johns frequenting Nebraska Avenue and the crimes associated with that."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Residents feel sidewalks, better lighting, more stores would aid safety 04/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 4:25pm]

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