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Plan to redevelop Oakhurst Square stirs emotion in West Tampa

Samuel Lopez, 21, spoke to a reporter about Oakhurst Square apartments in Tampa.
Samuel Lopez, 21, spoke to a reporter about Oakhurst Square apartments in Tampa.
Published Sep. 30, 2016

TAMPA

Three or four years from now, bulldozers may knock down the Oakhurst Square apartments in West Tampa to make way for something newer, with more apartments, plus corner stores and places to get something to eat.

It's an idea that has stirred speculation and suspicion in West Riverfront, a working-class neighborhood north of the University of Tampa. But for some of those who know Oakhurst Square best, the possibilities don't sound so bad.

"I think it will be nice, because the apartments need to be brand-new," resident Samuel Lopez said.

Currently, if you live in Oakhurst, picking up a sandwich means a trip to W Kennedy Boulevard, or W Columbus Drive, or N Howard Avenue. And this week, a couple of residents mentioned a shooting last month that killed a 20-year-old visitor to the complex.

"I'm moving anyway," said Nisha Calderon, 22. "My lease is up, and I want to move somewhere better."

For now, however, no changes are imminent for the complex, which is located along N Boulevard both north and south W Cypress Street.

But the owner of the apartments is asking the city to change the land use for the 8.1-acre property — a first step in a long process of working with federal housing officials to help relocate current tenants, then to tear down the apartments and redevelop the site.

When that happens, Oakhurst Square will be the latest in a series of West Tampa apartments for the poor to be razed.

Early this year, the Tampa Presbyterian Village apartments were torn down after the Florida Department of Transportation bought the complex and moved more than 300 residents out.

For nearly two years, the Tampa Housing Authority has been working on relocation plans with more than 2,000 residents at North Boulevard Homes. Plans call for those World War II-era apartments to be demolished and replaced by a mix of housing, some subsidized and some renting or selling for prices set by the free market.

The redevelopment at North Boulevard Homes is part of an ambitious plan to bring new residents and business to an area being called the West River. It's a priority for Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and it includes, among other things, the $35.5 million redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, directly across the street from Oakhurst Square.

In that sense, the redevelopment of the Oakhurst apartments would complement the plan for West River, 120 acres west of the Hillsborough River and mostly north of Interstate 275.

Developers Adam Harden and Chas Bruck bought Oakhurst Square two years ago for $7.2 million. It was their second big acquisition near the northern end of downtown. They also are redeveloping The Heights property, including the red-brick Tampa Armature Works building, on the east side of the river.

Because of the residents with Section 8 vouchers, the new Oakhurst Square owners will be required to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ahead of any redevelopment on a plan to find new housing for residents who receive public assistance.

"We think this property occupies a really key spot," Harden said last week during a City Council discussion of the proposed land-use change. It's a gateway to the western part of downtown and is along key transit routes. But, he said, the existing cinderblock apartments are "nearing the end of their functional life."

•••

Oakhurst Square was built in the early 1970s and now has 200 apartments, about 40 percent of which get federal Section 8 housing subsidies.

Under the land use changes the council considered last week, the property could be redeveloped with up to 487 apartments or other dwellings, plus corner stores and offices. Typically, buildings with that land use can range from four to 10 stories high.

To City Council member Frank Reddick — who grew up in West Tampa, remembers Oakhurst Square being built and now represents the area — the idea of residents being moved bothers him.

"Why is it always the poor have got to suffer for rich people?" Reddick said. "Developers keep thinking that we can keep coming into the inner city community and relocating people and people should be happy. ... It's difficult for me to be supportive of a plan that's going to relocate poor people."

He wasn't alone.

"I'm concerned about the people who live there now," council member Charlie Miranda said. "What are we going to do for them?"

Harden said his plans for the Oakhurst property are likely on a three- to four-year timeline and that he's empathetic to residents. Working with a major development company, he and Bruck have developed a thousand units of affordable housing in the Tampa Bay area. His wife is a school social worker at Gorrie Elementary, and "a good bit of her caseload" lives at Oakhurst Square.

"I understand what you're saying," Harden told Reddick, "but it's functionally obsolete."

Also speaking against the changes were residents of nearby West Riverfront, including former Hillsborough County School Board member Doris Ross Reddick, who said she doesn't want anything changed.

"It seems that whenever developers want to develop, they always want to encroach upon the urban core," said Ken Perry, treasurer of the West Riverfront Crime Watch Association.

Crime watch vice president Delphine Jones said a dense multi-story urban complex would be incompatible with the lower-density neighborhood of single-family homes in West Riverfront.

"People in this area just feel like they're being pushed out," she told the council. "It's like it's a vulture here and a vulture there and a vulture here and a vulture there. … It's a never-ending story."

•••

But City Hall didn't just start planting the seeds of change.

City Council member Lisa Montelione said Tampa officials have put together several plans for the area — including the InVision Tampa plan and a new community redevelopment area for West Tampa — over the last 5½ years, and they all call for the kind of redevelopment Harden is talking about.

"Change is hard," she said, and Harden's project will be "the toughest one because it is the first."

"If we're not going to redevelop the area, why did we create a CRA?" Montelione said. "We hoped somebody would come in and develop it. ... All the other votes should have been different if we were going to say 'no' the first time it comes in."

The City Council voted to approve the land-use change 4-to-2, with Reddick and Miranda voting no and Mike Suarez absent. The change comes back to the council for a final vote at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 6.

Harden noted HUD will have to approve and be involved in any relocation plans, and he wants not only to work with the residents, but to engage with neighbors.

"We are committed to re-creating a portion of the affordable units on site," Harden said. "We do understand when we bought this property" that helping to relocate residents was "part of the duty we had when it came to redevelop it."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson @tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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