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Pandemic, protests pack brutal punch for Tampa’s University Area

The community near the University of South Florida, where a Champs Sports store burned down Sunday, has long suffered from neglect.
The Champs Sports store is looted and set ablaze on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa.
The Champs Sports store is looted and set ablaze on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 2, 2020
Updated Jun. 2, 2020

TAMPA — Before everything changed, Wajih Ali could look out at the dining room of his Southern Fry American Halal Food restaurant and see a dozen people lunching on from-scratch fried chicken and meat-and-rice platters.

Despite the giant “OPEN COME ON IN” banner out front, a lone diner ate facing Fowler Avenue Monday, just down the street from the Champs Sports store that burned down in the early morning hours Sunday. Dozens of other businesses were damaged by protesters, some of them looted.

“Every day, we keep thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Ali, who runs the restaurant with the help of his wife and daughter.

It’s been a one-two punch for businesses like his in Tampa’s University Area, a community long troubled by neglect just west of the University of South Florida’s sprawling Tampa campus.

Aerial view of an empty parking lots of the University Mall due to COVID-19 closures pictured on Thursday, April 9, 2020 in Tampa.
Aerial view of an empty parking lots of the University Mall due to COVID-19 closures pictured on Thursday, April 9, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

First came the pandemic shut-down. Now, it’s destruction and fear, and a city-imposed curfew, after protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the area already had existing economic troubles, and then came the pandemic, the inability for people to work and trouble getting unemployment.

"That has turned an area in crisis into an area even more in crisis,'' she said.

At the edge of a major state university and institutions including the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, the neighborhood has struggled for decades.

The entrance to Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa.
The entrance to Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center ]

In the 1960s, just as urban renewal was knocking down housing in Ybor City and displacing residents, developers were building affordable student housing around the new state university at the far-flung edge of Tampa.

“What was groomed as a student living area became a place where the poorest people moved,” said Andrew Huse, librarian and archivist at USF.

Today, students who live off-campus tend to settle north and east of the school, and not as much to the west in what’s known as the University Area. Over the years, it’s also sometimes been derisively called “Suitcase City” because of its transient population.

Several former local prep football standouts including USF quarterback Jordan McCloud (standing, center left, black shirt) and his brother Ray-Ray (standing, center left, blue shirt) helped clean up debris around the Champs Sports store Sunday on Fowler Avenue. The store was burned  in the early hours Sunday. [Photo by Cadi Molina]
Several former local prep football standouts including USF quarterback Jordan McCloud (standing, center left, black shirt) and his brother Ray-Ray (standing, center left, blue shirt) helped clean up debris around the Champs Sports store Sunday on Fowler Avenue. The store was burned in the early hours Sunday. [Photo by Cadi Molina] [ Cadi Molina ]

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, whose District 7 includes the Fowler Avenue area, said it’s a place “that suffered from tremendous neglect. Parts of our city have gotten tremendous attention. Unfortunately, the USF and North Tampa area has not gotten that amount of attention.”

The focus, he said, has been on the downtown core, to the detriment of some neighborhoods.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, remembers when she was a teenager growing up in North Tampa and University Square Mall was the hot spot.

But the city of Tampa annexed the New Tampa area nearly to the Pasco County line, promoting leap-frog development that undermined small family-owned businesses and stable neighborhoods in north Tampa, she said.

“I think that really made the job situation tougher and it’s never quite recovered,’’ she said.

The area has seen some improvements: a community center, a much-needed library. Restaurants Portillo’s and Miller’s Ale House have popped up along Fowler, and a Studio Movie Grill opened on the back side of the old mall, a once-thriving shopping center that has seen better days.

Biggest of all has been an ambitious plan to remake the mall and surrounding environs into what former county commissioner Mark Sharpe called “a thriving technology village for the community.”

“USF is just exploding with research. ... It’s our greatest concentration of institutional wealth. Yet also we have some of the poorest neighborhoods in our county," said Sharpe, now the chief potential officer for the Tampa Innovation Partnership. “So great wealth and great poverty, side by side, like two parallel universes missing each other.”

Sharpe, who lived in the University Area for a year and gave up his car to ride the bus for three years to see what public transportation options were like, said the recent events “just makes me want to work harder, to dig in deeper.”

“There was so much promise for the area,’’ said Commission Chairman Les Miller about the planned innovation district that could create close-to-home jobs for people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Commissioner Les Miller
Commissioner Les Miller [ Times (2017) ]

"Then all of a sudden Saturday night occurred, and it set us back,’’ he said. “It does seem like we take one step forward and then two steps backward,’’

At his restaurant, Ali must close early because of the new 7:30 p.m. citywide curfew related to the protests, cutting off his dinner business.

“They’re not doing a lot in this area,” he said. “They have to pay more attention to this area improving.”

“It’s very hard,” he said.