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Park gets some TLC

After years of neglect, Highland Avenue Park in Tampa Heights is getting new sidewalks, benches and lights.

Neighborhood leaders hope the improvements will make the former trolley turnaround a focal point for the historic community north of downtown.

"We want this park to be special," said Eddie Serralles, vice president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. "We want to make it a model."

The association has teamed up with the city of Tampa on the project. The city received a $70,000 federal grant to replace the sidewalks and restore the perimeter wall. Local businesses donated the benches and lights.

Construction on the sidewalks that crisscross the park began earlier this month. The concrete dated back to 1914 and had never been replaced, Serralles said.

Next, crews will start work on the white block wall that surrounds the oval park.

Officials hope to finish the renovations by August. Any leftover money will go toward installing a gazebo and landscaping.

The improvements mark the first major upgrade to the park in years. Playground equipment was installed a few years ago, but a lack of money prevented other improvements.

"This park has been neglected for a very long time," said Ralph Schuler, association president and four-year Tampa Heights resident.

The project is considered a small, yet key, part of the community's revival. The century-old park is surrounded by brick streets and historic houses, many of which were restored in the past few years.

A former hangout for homeless people, the park has become a popular gathering place for families new to the neighborhood. To help out, residents mow the grass and pick up trash.

"We want to make Tampa Heights the next Hyde Park," said Serralles, whose office faces the park. "It's got a lot of potential, and it's heading in the right direction."

People can get a preview of the improvements during the seventh annual Tampa Heights Tour of Homes on Saturday.

_ Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or