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  1. Transportation

Heights activists complain of blight at DOT properties

TAMPA

Rick Fernandez points out two historic properties that are owned by the Florida Department of Transportation in Tampa Heights.

Not a pretty pair.

One is a boarded-up former apartment building with trash scattered about the side yard. The other is a boarded-up house with a hanging gutter and collapsed front steps.

Neighbors say the structures, which lie in the path of the proposed interstate expansion called TBX, have become magnets for squatters, drug dealers, prostitutes and trash dumpers.

Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association, said it's the owners' responsibility to keep people away from their empty structures and prevent the properties from becoming eyesores.

"FDOT is not being a responsible owner.''

Association board member Ricky Peterika said the DOT purchased the 108-year-old house at 604 E. Francis Ave. — one street over from his home — more than a year ago.

"They immediately boarded it up but didn't secure the property itself, so it quickly became over-run — people in the back yard, sleeping on the ground,'' Peterika said.

Fernandez said squatters were living for while in a unit of the boarded-up old apartment building at 1902 N Lamar Ave.

"I encouraged them to find a different alternative," he said.

Both properties are considered structures that contribute to the heights historic district, and it takes longer for the state to verify their status and to eventually offer them for sale to buyers who are willing to move them, according to the DOT.

Bill Scott, who manages DOT-owned property for the agency, said his office has posted "No Trespassing'' signs, given police the right to arrest anyone squatting on the properties, and contracted with crews to keep the lawns mowed and clear away trash.

The task is harder at the Frances and Lamar properties because they are located along a route frequented by homeless people, Scott said.

The Frances Avenue property appears to be a favorite trash dumping spot, and it's hard to keep up with it, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

"We are absolutely trying, but the public has a responsibility not to use it as a dumping ground as well,'' she said.

On the other side of the Malfunction Junction interchange, Ybor City faces similar problems, said Chris Vela, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association.

"A lot of these properties sit boarded up. I think we've lost about three properties to fire alone in our neighborhood.''

But it's also unsightly when the agency moves or tears down a house and leaves a vacant lot.

"We're trying to have some density in these areas and keep what we have, and fight for it,'' he said.

The heights civic association has plans to move the former Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church, on the corner of Palm and Lamar avenues, which is also part of the DOT inventory. The Florida Legislature set aside $1.2 million to relocate the building, which is used as a community center by the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association.

But Fernandez said it isn't clear whether the building can be moved, or where it will be moved, or whether $1.2 million will be enough for the project.

He said the association just wants to keep historic properties standing "until this whole TBX kerfuffle is resolved.''

Though TBX is listed as a priority project by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, it's not a sure thing, Fernandez said. Its status is reviewed yearly, and he said opponents are gaining ground each year.

He wants DOT to wait until the project gets final approval and work is set to begin before demolishing any more structures.

"The main thing is to not have TBX do unnecessary damage to neighborhood,'' he said.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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