TAMPA — Since 1888, three acres along the 3500 block of North Boulevard have been designated a final resting place, first as part of the city’s larger Woodlawn Cemetery and today as the privately owned Showmen’s Rest Cemetery for the area’s carnival and circus workers.
But a piece of that property could one day be a place where the living rest, instead.
On Sept. 30, Skyline 41 Investments will ask Tampa City Council to rezone 1.56 acres of Showmen’s Rest Cemetery for residential purposes. Skyline president Steven Eshkenazi said that parcel could fit as many as 15 single family homes or townhouses, but they could build less.
The Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association, which owns the cemetery, has not used that portion for burials.
A community group doesn’t want the development to happen.
Hundreds of people who either have loved ones buried in neighboring Woodlawn Cemetery or live nearby have formed the Save Woodlawn Cemetery group on Facebook to lobby city council to deny the rezoning request.
“Cemeteries are sacred ground,” said Susan Roghair, who lives in the area. “They are not a place for homes.”
The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website classifies that empty parcel as a cemetery, but Eshkenazi does not consider it to be one.
“It has never been used as a cemetery,” he said, “and reports provided by experts determined there are no bodies or caskets.”
A misnomer among opponents, he added, is that the land is owned by the city and still part of Woodlawn.
Sale of the land to Skyline is not finalized. The Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association, which did not return two Tampa Bay Times voicemails, would still own the half of the land used for burials.
The association purchased three acres from the city in 1971, according to the deed available on the property appraiser’s website.
“But we cannot be certain what happened between 1888 and 1971” when it was part of Woodlawn, said Aileen Henderson.
Henderson, who has relatives buried in Woodlawn, is worried there are unmarked graves.
Eshkenazi hired GeoView, the geophysical services company that discovered the 145 graves on King High School’s campus, to roll ground-penetrating radar across the property.
According to the report available through Hillsborough County Planning Commission, “It appears that graves are not present at the project site.”
“Appears” is not enough, Henderson said. “We need it to be definite. Even if there is one body there, that is one too many. The dead have no voice. It is up to us to protect them.”
Still, Henderson will remain opposed to the development if there are no graves. She worries that resident parties, increased traffic or everyday noise from the homes will negatively impact Woodlawn.
When families buried loved ones in Woodlawn, she said, they did so with the understanding that it would remain a “peaceful, tranquil place. I would not appreciate a townhouse disturbing the peace we expect to have when visiting a loved one.”
Daniel Barshay echoed that sentiment.
“This is crossing the line,” he wrote on the Facebook page. “A park is only as nice as you keep it. A cemetery — everywhere in the world — is not for casual dispersal.”