The neighborhoods scored a belated but important victory last month when the Tampa City Council rejected a bid to expand a popular bar on South Howard Avenue. The decision reflected tensions between residents and Howard bar owners that were years in the making, and while the council got it right this time, the city still has more work to do in better balancing the interests of the businesses with the rights of nearby homeowners. The city also needs to learn from this experience as it works to manage the entertainment district taking shape along the northern bank of the downtown riverfront.
The council rejected a proposal to expand Yard of Ale on S. Howard into a former chocolate outlet next door. An expansion, Council Member Yvonne Yolie Capin said, seemed like overkill, and she captured the frustration over the raucous party district by pointing to the cumulative effect of having so many outdoor bars along the tightly packed street.
Residents, not surprisingly, were elated, and saw council's move as a step toward "taking back our neighborhoods to make them safe places to live again," as the vice-president of Parkland Estates Civic Club put it after the vote. One resident told council he was assaulted along so-called SoHo last year by a large group of drunken partiers after he took a photo of the group banging on parked cars. His experience was extreme, but hardly shocking in a stretch of South Tampa where young people flock to drink and socialize into the wee hours before drifting back to their cars in the neighborhoods, where some stop to urinate on porches and garages; others have been found passed out on lawns. "This has become nothing but a binge-drinking corridor," said Greg Subero, the area resident who was attacked.
To be fair, Yard of Ale is not the only target of criticism and it certainly didn't start the problem. The free-for-all in SoHo has been a decade in the making. And fault doesn't rest entirely with the bars. The city turned a blind eye to parking, security concerns and nuisance complaints until they spilled beyond the breaking point. They heralded SoHo as a measure of a town on the move when in reality they had no idea how to manage the mixed-use environment. And the city failed to create space for residents and business owners to search for common ground. The explosion of apartments and lack of mass transit also worked in its usual fashion to make matters worse.
Whether the council's vote marks a new level of vigilance or merely reflects the upcoming election season remains to be seen. SoHo business owners are not entirely tone-deaf; many see the problem and the self-interest — if not the responsibility — to be more proactive in addressing security and nuisance concerns.
The council needs to stay on this issue, and work to resolve the circus atmosphere in SoHo in a comprehensive manner. It also needs to work with city staff to ensure that a similar headache is not in the making in the fast-emerging entertainment district on downtown's northern end. That area is vastly different from SoHo; it is geographically spread out, has fewer residents nearby and has more parking, a greater mix of bars and restaurants and better traffic flow. But it is also a red-hot destination, and without adequate planning, Tampa could find itself struggling again to protect the character of another historic neighborhood.
The residents need to keep up their advocacy. It took too long, but it pays to participate in the civic process. The businesses and residents have a common goal in ensuring SoHo is attractive and safe, and a destination for home and entertainment alike. Mixed-use districts should be just that — a healthy balance of live-work-play that builds pride and value in the neighborhoods.