The group of Black leaders who helped create a Deuces redevelopment plan that included stores, restaurants and offices, along with affordable townhomes, say they weren’t consulted before the city opted to spend $19.1 million on just 24 townhomes.
They want the city to reconsider.
Local activist and publisher Gypsy Gallardo wrote a letter last week to Mayor Ken Welch and the City Council. It came after council members approved the plan Jan. 18 with a 5-2 vote, even as some of the supporters expressed concern over the price. Gallardo wrote that she spoke for herself with the approval of members of the Sankofa Vision Group, which helped make the initial redevelopment proposal.
“While I appreciate those who lent support to the urgent need for affordable housing, I must agree with the Tampa Bay Times editorial on January 25, which challenges us as taxpayers to reflect,” She wrote. “To Councilmembers who voted yes, I respect and fully understand your choice, for the same reasons you stated as rationale. Yet, it is my hope that there is room to reconsider.”
Gallardo is part of the Sankofa Vision Group, a coalition of organizations formed in 2020 interested in reviving 22nd Street South, known as the Deuces, once the business and cultural heart of the city’s Black community. The group includes the Pinellas County Urban League, the Equity Institute, the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa.
The plan at the time was to fund the construction of affordable townhomes, which were built for ownership among low- to middle-income residents, and the commercial space. The City Council voted in April 2021 to partner with the Sankofa Vision Group, whose role was to operate and sublease the commercial space to locally grown and minority-owned businesses.
St. Petersburg has tabled the commercial part of the development, opting to focus on just the townhomes. However, some of that $19.1 million price tag includes groundwork for the commercial portion should it ever get built.
Gallardo wrote that Sankofa spent years putting together a plan with community consensus, and had they been consulted on the $19 million proposal, “they might have offered a different take,” she said.
Attorney Tamara Felton-Howard, CEO of the Equity Institute, told the Times that more recent conversations included building 80 affordable rental units on the land along Fairfield Avenue S. as part of a mixed-use development with commercial space. She said when the group met with the city in July 2023, she asked why costs for the townhomes increased so much but never received a response.
Felton-Howard said Sankofa members met with city officials on Jan. 24 to discuss the future of the commercial space and left “hopeful” with the notion that the building could be scaled down. She said there have also been conversations with the Tampa Bay Rays and development partner Hines to build business incubator space on the Deuces and as part of the Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment, but not to duplicate efforts.
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She said city officials at last week’s meeting acknowledged the group was not updated and apologized.
“We were sort of surprised by the approval of the townhomes and more surprised by the lack of communication between us,” Felton-Howard said. “We’re still open and willing and ready to be partners on anything else on the corridor.”
Only a City Council member who voted in favor of the project could call for it to be reconsidered. Council chairperson Deborah Figgs-Sanders, vice chairperson Copley Gerdes and council members Gina Driscoll, Lisset Hanewicz and John Muhammad voted for the townhomes. Richie Floyd and Ed Montanari, who are polar opposites politically, voted no. Brandi Gabbard was absent.
In a text message, council member Gina Driscoll said it was “unfortunate that the letter was sent after the fact.”
“There are some good points that would have been beneficial to our discussion before we voted,” she said.
It was a tough decision, Muhammad said. He said he was happy to support a Black contractor and create opportunities for jobs within the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, and that “righting these wrongs are going to cost us a little more.”
“One of the things that I guess was overlooked was the conversation with the original visionaries of that project,” he said. “Thinking that they will be supportive of the project, I was supportive of the project.”
None of the other city council members responded to individual calls and texts requesting comment. City spokesperson Erica Riggins said the city could not produce a response from the mayor’s office until Friday.
Gallardo ended her letter asking for a meeting with involved parties and nearby stakeholders, including Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, who own several properties on the Deuces. Elihu Brayboy said his commercial tenants could benefit from more residential units, and they met with the mayor Wednesday to pitch building six condo buildings seven stories tall on land that includes four city parcels.
“How do we get back that generational wealth that was lost from the original Gas Plant redevelopment and 22nd street Commerce Park redevelopment,” he said. “We’re trying to get back that commercial development on the corridor.”
As for the city’s plan for the Deuces townhomes, “We think that’s a very expensive commitment. And it hurts. It hurts in the sense of the large amount of subsidy for one unit,” he said. “I just don’t understand how that makes good sense. I’m not knocking them, my gosh, we need the housing units.”