TAMPA — Marie Evans didn’t know whether to be glad or sad when she was forced to move out of North Boulevard Homes ahead of its 2018 date with a wrecking ball.
Drug and gang crime had been rife in the dilapidated, 44-acre public housing complex, whose oldest parts were built in the 1940s. Tampa Housing Authority officials had promised displaced residents they could return eventually, but that seemed a distant hope. Evans had no idea where she would live in the meantime.
“We were upset, because we didn’t really know where to go,” said Evans, 68.
But barely two years after the complex was demolished, Evans will be one of the first to move back to the neighborhood with a guaranteed place in the newly opened Renaissance at West River. The $46 million, six-story apartment complex, which will house about 160 seniors, opened Thursday.
It is the first of about half a dozen new buildings that comprise the ambitious West River urban renewal development, intended to transform a once ailing area into a mixed-income neighborhood that will expand the city’s burgeoning downtown west of the Hillsborough River.
The neighborhood around W Main Street and Rome Avenue already has changed beyond recognition.
Four other West River apartment complexes are under construction. The city spent $35 million renovating the nearby Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. And a recently awarded $24 million federal transportation grant will pay to extend the Tampa Riverwalk on the west side of the river, a plan that includes 12 miles of connected bike and pedestrian paths separated from road traffic.
The new apartment complexes will have street-level retail units for stores, restaurants and bars, making the neighborhood pedestrian friendly. They will make up part of a new Main Street corridor and serve as a gateway to West Tampa, said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor at an opening ceremony Thursday.
“So much is going on in this area,” Castor said. “It’s just going to be incredible to be able to connect all of these vibrant neighborhoods in our community.”
The sight of new construction close to downtown has raised concerns that poorer residents will be forced out by higher rents. The Tampa Housing Authority, which is managing the West River project, is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace all 1,600 public housing units lost from North Boulevard Homes.
Displaced residents have the right of first refusal for the new homes, although only about 12 percent of them typically take that opportunity, according to Housing Authority figures.
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About 30 former North Boulevard residents have indicated they want to return and live in the Renaissance, said Leroy Moore, chief operating officer for the Housing Authority. As in any public housing, their rent will be subsidized, so they spend no more than one third of their income on accommodations.
The new apartment complex will be an upgrade from North Boulevard. It has a laundry room on every floor, a hair salon and community space for wellness and craft activities. The apartments are fitted with granite countertops and include baths with grab bars and rails intended to make it easier to get in and out.
Evans, the returning resident, said it would be the first time in her life to live in a new apartment.
“I came yesterday and I looked at my apartment, and I love it,” she said.
The West River project is part of Tampa’s commitment to provide 10,000 affordable housing units by 2027.
But Housing Authority officials acknowledged it will make only a dent in the city’s demand for low-cost housing. Some 20,000 residents are on the agency’s waiting list, even after it was trimmed recently to remove people who have found satisfactory housing.
Those at the top of the list will be offered most of the available apartments with a handful earmarked to go to homeless seniors.
"People see this and think, ‘where can I apply?’' said Moore. “You can’t apply.”