TAMPA — If some Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights residents had their druthers, the state would simply demolish Interstate 275, which now severs their neighborhoods.
Loud, sustained applause and shouts of "Yeah," from nearly 100 people greeted just such a proposal Tuesday.
"Tear it down!" said Joshua Frank, an urban planner who wrote his Master's degree thesis on an alternative to the controversial highway expansion program called TBX (short for Tampa Bay Expressway).
Frank has been studying the issue for more than a year and is the vice president and president-elect of the Urban Charrette, a non-profit group that educates and collaborates with communities to educate them about urban design best practices.
His presentation, "Bifurcation to Boulevard", showed how transforming the Interstate into a wide, landscaped boulevard, featuring bike and pedestrian paths and even light commuter rail, would transform the area north of Tampa's downtown core.
Frank described the current north-south highway as primarily a local expressway for people living and working between the University of South Florida (USF) and downtown Tampa.
Less than 35 percent of the vehicles that traverse the roadway are from outside the area, according to Frank.
"It is expendable," he said, arguing that over the past 50 years, I-275 has severely damaged neighborhoods, polluted their air, raised noise levels well beyond acceptable standards, and lowered property values.
"Reintegrating" the neighborhoods now split by the six-lane roadway would improve their quality of life and lead to a rapid and sustained increase in economic activity, according to Frank.
Calling his plan a "dream scenario", Frank said turning I-275 into tree-lined boulevard similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris or the Embarcadero in San Francisco would "make it better for all of us."
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had no comment on Frank's proposal.
Instead, the agency is continuing to plan for the Interstate expansion that would result in demolishing yet more of the neighborhoods' homes and businesses FDOT needs to build future toll lanes.
On Wednesday, FDOT spokesperson Kristen Carson characterized TBX is a "major interstate improvement program to modernize key interchanges, replace aging infrastructure, and improve mobility on portions of I-275 and I-4".
She stressed FDOT is "taking the time" to respond to community concerns.
Planning for TBX is now proceeding at a slower pace, dubbed a "reset", in reaction to the neighborhood's strong opposition to the expansion. A series of community meetings are planned to begin by the end of May.
Kimberly Overman, president of the Heights Urban Core Chamber which sponsored Tuesday's community meeting, is cautiously optimistic that FDOT might consider Frank's proposal to demolish I-275.
"They had at least 10 people here," she said. "They are very interested. What boulevards do is open up opportunities."
She also pointed to a trip to St. Louis that FDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) organized for local residents, elected officials and agency representatives.
Area transportation projects there involved extensive participation by the public and resulted in a combination of highways and transit.
Eight Tampa residents reported their impressions of the Missouri program at Tuesday's meeting.
"Missouri started with people and neighborhoods and asked what they wanted. FDOT presented us with a baked cake and the only questions were where do we want to plant the palm trees," said Rick Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association.
Pat Kemp, a Hillsborough County commissioner and 30-year resident of Seminole Heights, called on fellow residents to "stay engaged."
She called I-275 a "sprawl machine for Pasco County developers."
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at [email protected]