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  1. Transportation

Cafe Hey sends message to FDOT with artful mural

TAMPA — For years, artists have approached Cafe Hey owner S. Cheong Choi about painting a mural on the side of the restaurant that faces Interstate 275.

It wasn't until earlier this year when the Florida Department of Transportation announced it was fast-tracking plans to widen I-275 — and bulldoze the 105-year-old building his family has owned since the early 1980s — that Choi finally gave the idea the green light.

He tasked Tampa Heights artists, and Cafe Hey regulars Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol, with turning the brick blank slate into a piece of art.

"I wanted to create something that represented the history of the area," Sawyer said. "It's more than just a piece of land that can be plowed through. It is a neighborhood. We are people. There is a history there."

In late August she and her husband started clearing the weeds along the wall and by mid September the 60 by 20-foot mural was complete. They spent almost 80 hours, mostly at night, prepping and painting. An early morning street sweeper nearly took out their projector's extension cord.

Today the massive wall tells the story of Tampa Heights, the city's first official suburb.

In the center of the mural is a replica of the neighborhood at the turn of the century. Two hands circling the image represent the workers who lived in the humbler bungalows next to the Victorians of their bosses. The bold typography pays homage to Tampa Heights newspaperman William Benton Henderson.

In the middle of it all is one of Tampa's old streetcars, the kind of transit Sawyer and Krol welcome over FDOT's so-called, "Lexus lanes."

Choi loved it.

"It's a beautiful image that succinctly captured many of the different elements of Tampa Heights," he said.

A Franklin Street staple, Choi's family has occupied the white concrete building at the corner of Franklin and Kay Streets since the early 1980s. The family runs the on-site Oceanic Market, one of the few grocery stores near downtown, and a restaurant supply company. They also run TC Choy's in Hyde Park.

Cafe Hey opened in 2007 as a gathering spot for artists and innovators in the underserved area just north of downtown, Choi said. The restaurant's VLT (a vegetarian version of the BLT) and homemade soups get positive reviews from locals and travelers alike.

Businesses that have recently moved into the formerly vacant Yellow Brick Row, as the area is called, consider it a Franklin Street institution.

"Cafe Hey is a staple for this neighborhood," said Joshua Garman, co-owner of Hidden Springs Ale Works, which opened just up the road in September. "Losing it would be a travesty for this whole area. The neighborhood's finally starting to get the revitalization it needs and they want to take away a part of it that's been here forever."

Café Hey's future is in limbo as Choi and his family wait for more information.

FDOT officials confirmed the building is one of approximately 100 Tampa houses and 30 businesses that will be affected by the expansion. Property owners will be offered the fair market value of any structures that need to be demolished. Once the expansion's funding is secured, construction could start in as soon as five years.

Sawyer and Krol recently stood in front of their mural, pointing out flaws only its creators could see: a drop of white paint here, an outline that wasn't completely filled in there.

In the art world everything is transitory, they explained. An artist sells the painting he spent months creating, never to see it again. An art gallery's display is rotated out and replaced by new works. Murals get painted over everyday,

If the highway comes, this creation too will disappear. They accept that. To a point.

"No artwork is permanent," Krol said. "But this is destroying heritage."

Contact Helen Anne Travis at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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