TAMPA — Steve Semmelmann and his family lived in Riverview but drove 20 miles one way to eat at Armature Works, stroll the Riverwalk and attend Tampa Bay Lightning games.
The more they went to Tampa, the less reason they had to stay in Riverview. Finally, Semmelmann asked himself: "Why are we living here? It’s just a house.''
In July, they moved to Tampa Heights. They’re so close to their favorite restaurants and activities they can walk instead of battling traffic on the interstate. "So far, it’s been great,'' Semmelmann said. "Getting out of (Riverview) has been a huge relief from stress.''
Few places in the Tampa Bay area are generating as much buzz as Tampa Heights. Just a mile north of downtown Tampa, a community once viewed as slightly seedy, even rough, has become an exemplar of urban cool.
House prices are soaring, up 64 percent in two years. Young professionals are moving in from Chicago, New York and even tony South Tampa. And crime is down. Between 2008 and last year, reported burglaries plunged 64 percent, robberies 73 percent and auto burglaries 37 percent, according to crime statistics for the general area.
Still, there are concerns. Higher prices fueled by speculation and redevelopment are driving away some longtime residents. Tampa Bay’s notorious traffic problems continue to spur talk of widening Interstate 275, whose construction decades ago affected parts of Tampa Heights. In some ways, the community has not fully recovered.
For now, the real estate listings are exuberant: "Sought after neighborhood!'' "One of Tampa’s most desired communities!'' And simply, "Exciting Tampa Heights!''
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Developed in the 1880s from orange groves outside the city limits, Tampa Heights was Tampa’s first suburb. It was close to the city’s port and financial hub, yet distant enough from marshy, low-lying areas that residents felt safe from the periodic outbreaks of yellow fever. Doctors, lawyers and prominent business leaders like Tampa Tribune President Wallace F. Stovall built large, Queen-Anne style homes on bricks streets with granite curbstones.
"At the crest of its reputation around 1910, a Tampa Heights address was among the most fashionable in the city,'' according to the application that landed part of the area on the National Register of Historic Places eight decades later.
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As Palma Ceia, Davis Islands and other expensive neighborhoods developed, Tampa Heights became more middle class. The majority of newer homes were one-story bungalows. Churches and schools were prevalent but there were few commercial buildings since residents could hop a trolley to the main shopping areas of Ybor City and downtown Tampa.
The decline of Tampa Heights accelerated after World War II. The construction of Interstate 275 in the 1960s led to the demolition of many buildings, and residents began to flee in the face of blight and a rising crime rate. Tampa Heights pretty much dropped off the radar in other parts of the city.
"To be honest, I wasn’t aware of it,'' said Brad Cooke, who grew up in South Tampa and left Florida in 2004 to go to college and grad school. "The only neighborhoods that I was familiar with were Hyde Park and Ybor. You kind of always went around Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights.''
As South Tampa grew ever pricier, Seminole Heights, north of Tampa Heights, was the first to be rediscovered. People looking for character and affordability were drawn to its quaint bungalows and relative closeness to downtown Tampa, which was starting to shed its image as a place that went dark after 5 p.m. By the mid 2000s, Seminole Heights was touted as one of Tampa Bay’s trendiest neighborhoods.
Then came last year’s opening of Armature Works, a 1910 streetcar barn repurposed with a food hall, restaurants, rooftop bar and co-working and event spaces. It didn’t hurt that Armature Works was on the Riverwalk and near Ulele, a wildly popular restaurant in an old pump house.
"As soon as Armature opened up, there was a flood of people wanting to be south of Seminole Heights,'' developer Jason Giardina said. "That’s when Tampa Heights exploded.''
Realtor Courtney Poe agrees that Armature Works was a catalyst for Tampa Heights’ resurrection.
"Most of the property listings showcase the distance to Armature Works as a selling feature,'' she said. "Younger buyers want to be close to amenities — downtown, the Riverwalk, a place to grab lunch that they can walk or bike to.''
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One example of the dramatic rise in prices: A 1915 bungalow on N Highland Avenue. It sold for $75,000 in 2015; $105,000 in 2017 and $218,500 two months after Armature Works opened. Almost immediately after listing the house in July, Poe received multiple offers — it went for $275,000, $16,000 more than the asking price.
Poe also had several offers for the 1,250-square-foot house next door. Sold three years ago for $155,000, it is under contract at a list price of $275,000.
"Tampa Heights is the only place you can get a house under $300,000 that’s close to downtown Tampa,'' Poe said. “South Tampa is outrageous and nobody wants to live in the ‘burbs anymore.”
Before long, even $300,000 might be wishful thinking. In the 33602 zip code, which includes much of Tampa Heights, the median price of a single-family home jumped from $188,750 in the first quarter of 2017 to $309,900 in the first three months of this year. A house on West Street that sold for $265,000 in December sold in June for $435,000.
As its popularity skyrockets, Tampa Heights remains a hodge-podge of the old, the new and the run-down. It is not unusual to see — on the same block — a contemporary-style house under construction, a 1920s bungalow that has been lovingly restored, and a dump with weeds in the yard and plywood in the windows.
Domain Homes, known for its ability to spot up-and-coming urban neighborhoods, has built several homes in the area and is planning more. Giardina, co-owner of NEO Homes, said he likes nearby Riverside Heights because it has been a more stable, upscale community. But some clients are "opening up their budgets,'' he said, because they want to be in Tampa Heights, close to everything along the Riverwalk.
"They are willing to go three-quarters of a million (dollars), which two years ago was just unheard of,'' he said.
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Among Tampa Heights’ newer residents is Cooke, the Tampa native who moved back to town in 2016. He and his wife, both architects, bought a lot just north of Armature Works for $150,000 (it would be closer to $200,000 now) and designed a duplex. They live on one side and lease the other to a couple with two kids.
"We fell in love with Tampa Heights, the proximity to downtown, the historic character, all of the things happening in the neighborhood so we decided to invest in it,'' Cooke said. He can bike to downtown, where he heads the master planning team for the $3 billion mixed-use Water Street project.
Realtor Justin Ricke, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, has lived in the area for more than a decade. Back then, "walkability really didn’t seem to be a priority on Tampa’s road map,'' he said. "But I moved from Chicago, so I wanted a place where you don’t have to drive a lot of places.''
In the past few years, as membership in the civic association tripled, he’s been pleased to see more businesses emerge within walking distance. Shuffle, an indoor shuffleboard court with a bar and restaurant, opened last year on North Tampa Street. King State, which offers beer, food and locally roasted coffees, occupies what used to be a car wash and garage. The developers of The Heights, which includes Armature Works, have filed plans for a grocery.
"You’re starting to see business pop up where people wouldn’t have dreamed of investing before,'' Ricke said.
Not everyone is totally comfortable with the rapid changes. As of the 2010 Census, African-Americans and Hispanics made up 80 percent of Tampa Heights’ population. The head of the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association which provides tutoring and other services for children, has seen some minority families leave for less-expensive areas.
"It’s becoming a place where they can’t afford to stay in the homes they’ve lived in all their lives,'' said Naya Young, the association’s executive director. "It’s pushing them out of a community that we once were pushed into.''
Ricke acknowledges that people are leaving but dislikes the term "gentrification.''
"It has somewhat of a negative connotation,'' he said. "People who’ve been here a long time (and sell) are profiting quite handsomely off a low investment. If you’re being priced out from rentals, you can talk about any city that’s seen exponential growth. It really comes down to the county and local officials to make sure there’s affordable housing, and I’d like to see that dispersed a little more in places like Hyde Park.''
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Until the recent boom, the most affordable — and roughest part — of Tampa Heights has been near where I-275 sliced through the area. Still on the drawing board are plans to add lanes in a project that could require more right of way.
"We’ve seen how destructive that’s been to neighborhoods in the past,'' said Cooke, the architect. "My hope is that Tampa Heights will continue to prosper and grow and that will make it a much tougher sell if it does come back.''
When Semmelmann and his wife decided to leave Riverview for Tampa this year, they needed a place big enough for them and the three kids still at home. They bought a 109-year-old, four-bedroom house so close to 1-275 they can see the wall and hear the traffic.
That’s okay with Semmelmann, who works for a software company and likes the fact he can easily get on the interstate to go visit customers. What he most appreciates about his new home, though, is that he can walk to so many places. Just two blocks away is Lee’s Grocery, where customers can enjoy stone-baked pizza and craft beers at an indoor bar or shaded outdoor patio.
"It’s one of those small corner shops where everybody knows your name,'' he said. "It has that small-town feel.''
The Semmelmanns paid $480,000 for the house. That’s $160,000 more than it sold for two years ago.
"We got it at the right time,'' Semmelmann said. "Well, not exactly the right time, but the right time for us.''