As Interstate 275 expands, neighbors feel the squeeze

TAMPA

At less than one-eighth of an acre, Estelle Brown's yard is small. But for years, it's been her refuge.

Even at 85, Brown spends most of her time there, tending to dozens of potted plants and resting in the shade of a pecan tree.

Now, development threatens to disturb her peace.

Just feet away from Brown's Carver City home, construction crews are building a nearly 30-foot-tall off-ramp.

Part of the Interstate 275 expansion project, which will widen the interstate to four lanes in each direction between the Hillsborough River and State Road 60, the new southbound off-ramp slopes down to Cypress Street, overlooking Brown's back yard on the way.

While neighbors are concerned about the noise and pollution an expanded interstate will bring and the impact construction already has had on their homes, it's the ramp's proximity that scares Brown most.

"If a car comes off that interstate, it's going to crash right into my yard," she said.

Construction on the $215 million project began in 2012 and is expected to be completed by fall 2016. The project includes reconstruction of all southbound lanes from SR 60 to the Hillsborough River as well as northbound lanes from SR 60 to Himes Avenue.

Once completed, there will be at least four lanes in each direction, a flatter roadway with better sight lines and a wide median for future transportation developments, said Florida Department of Transportation spokesman John McShaffrey. Congestion that drivers now experience near downtown Tampa should be reduced, he said.

One major change that will help: The Lois Avenue southbound exit, which has been closed during recent construction, will no longer exist. Instead, motorists will access an off-ramp before Dale Mabry Highway that will service both that exit and Cypress Street.

"It allows the traffic that is exiting off the interstate to do so sooner," McShaffrey said.

When the project first began, the state bought up scores of properties it needed in order to construct the new highway, McShaffrey said. In many areas, where the interstate runs straight east to west, entire blocks were demolished, cutting away neighborhoods a row at a time.

But in the area of Carver City, which lies north of I-275 and west of Dale Mabry, the new interstate curves south, forcing the state to buy properties in a zig-zag pattern, leaving dead end streets and corner houses like Brown's unusually close to the new highway.

It couldn't be avoided, McShaffrey said, because of the law of eminent domain. The state can only purchase properties it needs for the construction project.

"We can't buy a house just because we are going close to it," he said. "That's to protect the taxpayers and the people we are buying from. You don't want government to be able to go in and buy a property they don't really need."

That answer doesn't offer Brown much relief. Construction has sent vibrations through her more than 60-year-old house. Framed photos fell and cracks shot through some of the walls, Brown said.

She filed a complaint with Skanska, the construction company in charge of the project. An engineer came to look at the damage, she said, but ultimately her claim was denied.

"They said my house is old, that it's settling," she said.

Neighbors have similar complaints.

A few blocks over on W Grace Street, houses have a front yard view of the Cypress Street off-ramp.

The ramp, along with a separate bike path the state is installing in conjunction with the city of Tampa, cuts so close to the street that Norman Wright has trouble backing out of his driveway.

His house, and a few others on the block, suffered cracking in recent months. Their claims were denied, too, Wright said.

Despite not being required to, the state is building an 8-foot wall to separate the off-ramp from the homes, McShaffrey said.

"We decided to put a wall on that traffic barrier to give at least a visual block," McShaffrey said.

But that doesn't alleviate concerns for Wright.

"If there's a traffic jam, there's going to be dozens of cars lined up in front of our homes," Wright said. "We don't have trees or anything to filter the pollution out."

And the worst part, Wright said, is feeling stuck. Selling, he said, no longer feels like an option.

"Everybody is benefiting from this interstate at our expense," Wright said. "Who would buy this house now?"

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

As Interstate 275 expands, neighbors feel the squeeze 11/30/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 30, 2013 9:35pm]

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