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Carlton: Is Tampa losing its ugly?

Is it possible? Is Tampa losing its ugly?

For years, for decades, you could find ugly everywhere in this town — in old hotels gone to seed, in abandoned buildings, in indefensible public housing complexes that were a study in blight. Even much of the Hillsborough River was ugly, what you could see of it — a peek of it between ugly downtown buildings or from a patch of grass near the ugly interstate.

Years ago, they plopped down a performing arts center like a bunch of cardboard boxes on a forgotten crook of the river at the edge of downtown. The fanciest, most famous restaurant in the city, Bern's Steak House, has sorely lacked for curb appeal.

Sure, we've always had beauty in the old bungalows and cigar factories that managed to survive. There's curving Bayshore Boulevard, water on one side, genteel manses on the other — but that's South Tampa, where they can afford to be less tolerant of the unattractive.

But, wait. Is this a city working on its pretty?

Everywhere you look lately is the after-segment of a DIY home show in which a dirt back yard where goats once grazed is transformed into wood-decked, green-grassed wonder. Downtown's old Floridan hotel, long evoking bats and ghosts, broken bottles and homeless campfires, morphed into a lovely hotel without losing coolness points, as has the old courthouse. That corner of the river by Interstate 275 is a sprawling park, and who knew you could see a gorgeous sunset across that river?

A Bern's wine warehouse wall facing busy Howard Avenue just got a huge, striking mural. Murals grace once-dull sides of a huge downtown parking garage. The mayor, in fact, has gone a little mural mad, scanning the city for canvases — a public pool building here, a blank hotel wall on the Riverwalk there.

This week, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts — already having come a million miles from those cardboard box days, by the way — talked up plans to turn the place into an even sleeker, even more bustling venue with, among other changes, a platform on the river to which people would actually want to go. What is happening here?

It's not like ugly is over. Ask people what's the worst-looking building in town, and nominees fly in: the old downtown police station that looks like a place into which defeated workers in Moscow would trudge. That tall tan office tower that looks like a beer can or cigar, depending on your perspective. And pretty much every used car business behind a fence on Florida Avenue.

Maybe there's balance in the unloveliness of the University of South Florida — a fine school, but who hired the architectural firm of Squat & Beige? — and across town, the beautiful historic brick-and-minaret University of Tampa.

The trick for a city on the morph will be not to confuse character with ugly, not to go Disney, not to look like everywhere else. The trick is to fight to preserve things like the old water tower in Sulphur Springs and places like the bright carnival combination cafeteria/hair salon/bargain store with a tire shop on the side along West Tampa's Columbus Drive. How do you not love that place?

A few years back came a move to rid Ybor City of the proud chickens that strut and peck its parking lots and walk with impunity past shops and restaurants — apparently an offense to some who do not appreciate that the chickens were here first, that they are more what the Latin Quarter is about than, say, Ybor's more recent Buffalo Wild Wings location.

Maybe that's the mantra as Tampa cleans up nice: Paint the pretty murals, build the better buildings and save the chickens, too.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

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