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Amid a boom of new projects, residents ask: Will West Tampa become gentrified?

This is a rendering of the planned new Jewish Community Center, being built using the old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
This is a rendering of the planned new Jewish Community Center, being built using the old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
Published May 21, 2016

TAMPA — Despite upbeat presentations this week about improvements to West Tampa — the new Jewish Community Center, the millions that will be spent enhancing Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, the new development that will replace public housing — some questioned whether the neighborhood would become too gentrified.

"Where is everybody being moved to, and then when new housing comes back, who is going to ensure that the low-income residents have safe, affordable housing?'' asked Chloe Coney, a longtime civic activist who works for Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.

Michael Randolph, economic development director of the West Tampa Community Development Corporation, assured her that his organization will focus on that.

"Because if you don't,'' Coney warned, "you will have gentrification.''

Randolph, officials from the city and the Tampa Housing Authority and leaders from the Jewish Community Center briefed a full house at a West Tampa Library meeting room about improvements coming to the neighborhood in the next three to five years.

David Iloanya, director of real estate development for the Tampa Housing Authority, assured the audience that low-income residents being relocated for the demolition of North Boulevard Homes and other public housing have guarantees that they'll be able to move back into rent-subsidized new housing when their old neighborhood is redeveloped.

"I can assure you there are ample opportunities to come back,'' Iloanya said. "None of our residents are displaced at all.''

Randolph, who arranged the meeting, noted that the income of more than a third of West Tampa residents falls below the poverty level, and the community's high school dropout rate is 28 percent higher than the city as a whole.

While the city is concentrating on physical improvements, he said, social and economic improvements must be made at the same time for the neighborhood to fully benefit.

"Unless you have all three of these things combined,'' he said, "it doesn't work.''

The physical improvements are impressive. David Scher and Jack Ross of the Jewish Community Center showed floor plans and illustrations of the transformed Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on N Howard Avenue.

It will have a pool, fitness room, jogging track and basketball court and plenty of space for cultural programs, Scher said.

"We are very much an integrated community center," Scher said. "We describe ourselves a little bit like a YMCA on cultural steroids."

He and Ross said membership is open to everyone — half the members aren't Jewish — and they are working on a payment plan that would accommodate low-income residents.

Residents also heard about improvements to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The Tampa City Council on Thursday voted 6-1 to approve plans for a $35.5 million renovation of the park along the Hillsborough River. But the plans for the transformation of what's called the West River district seemed to draw the most interest from the crowd.

The City of Tampa plans to relocate an operations yard as well as demolish a swath of public housing in order to create a pleasing, walkable neighborhood of apartments and homes with access to the river.

"You will not recognize this place in the next five years,'' said Iloanya.

But not everyone was swayed by the promise of what's to come.

Neighborhood grocery store owner Mulu Aweke wonders how he will survive in the half-decade or more it will take for people to move back to the area. Leroy Moore Sr., chief operating officer of the housing authority, could not offer any answers other than to beef up his marketing efforts.

"I'm suffering day by day,'' Aweke said outside the meeting room. He has run his small grocery at W Main and Rome Avenue since 2004. He said 85 percent of his customers come from North Boulevard Homes.

"Every day, people come by (and say) 'We're moving.' Every day," he said. "Now, I think it's very close to the end, so I don't know what I'm going to do.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.