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Never too late to build pride

If late really is better than never, then Hillsborough County took a positive step last week when it decided to embark on a special planning study of the community that surrounds the University of South Florida (USF).

Pressure to do something constructive about the low-rent, high-crime neighborhoods west and north of the university has come both from beleaguered residents and the university itself.

It's hard to tell what will come of the study, which aims to come up with a "neighborhood plan" for future growth in the residential and business areas that surround the university. Much of the area already is developed as an unattractive mishmash, in which buildings were allowed to spring up with no eye to an overall sense of community.

But the frustration _ among the residents who have watched their property values fall and the crime rate rise, and the university, which longs for a classier address _ seems to have spurred officials to action.

"A lot of communities start with their university and build around it. That's often the area that people are attracted to. You say, "This is where I want to be,'

" said County Commissioner Pam Iorio. "That's not ever been the case here."

USF President Frank Borkowski helped get the ball rolling last year when he asked government officials for a detailed land-use study of the area aimed at making it a safer environment for USF students and the community.

Residents in the area are doing their part, too. In a little more than a year, a core group of concerned neighbors has formed an active civic association that has grown to more than 180 members. They spend considerable time lobbying officials for more law enforcement, code enforcement and attention.

Just last week, they held a meeting, at which they commanded the attention of Iorio and a dozen county department managers who answered questions about crime, trash and sidewalks.

Meanwhile, USF graduate architecture students have done some of the county's work with their own proposed "master plan" for the USF community.

In their study, they first detail the problems of the area, from disparate architecture that leads to a "snaggle-tooth look" to a lack of any sense of place or identity among residents and merchants.

"In the USF area, the noticeable lack of public affinity and affection can be found even in the lack of any sort of popular district name, with the exception of the pejorative "Suitcase City.' People apparently do not identify positively with the areas immediately surrounding the University," the students wrote.

To help solve that problem, they suggest more parks and public spaces, developing "outward focused" housing instead of self-contained and walled-off apartment complexes, and creating a network of blocks and alleys to promote the smooth flow of cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The county's study, which will take about a year and a half to complete, will survey the area and come up with strategies not only for zoning and development, but also code enforcement and crime prevention.

Iorio says that despite the development already in place, there is still much vacant land in the USF area, and a real plan for the community would help with redevelopment efforts, too.

Said Iorio: "I don't think it's too late to make some positive changes."

Jennifer Orsi is the bureau chief of the Times' Northdale office.