Exit trucks, enter people 

Embracing the potential of Ybor’s 21st/22nd Street corridor.

Airbrakes squeal, gears grind and the ground itself seems to shake. It is daunting to stand on the narrow sidewalk in Ybor City on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 21st Street as the light changes and huge, shiny oil tankers whoosh past. The lacy columns on the Columbia Restaurant’s portico have been splintered by the tankers barreling alongside the restaurant’s tiled walls and the heavy iron bollards placed on the corner to protect the building have been bashed.

But there’s good news: By December 2013 this grim scenario will dramatically change. All of the 5,000 trucks which currently hurtle past the Ybor City’s century-old buildings will be permanently rerouted onto the sleek new ribbons of asphalt which will connect I-4 to the Port of Tampa. The completion of the I-4 Crosstown Connector will improve the dynamics of being a pedestrian or bicyclist in Tampa’s Latin Quarter.

Exit trucks, enter bicyclists and pedestrians, living to tell. Removing the loud, dangerous and, dare we say, highly flammable trucks will allow the parallel north/south streets, 21st and 22nd, to be redesigned and turned over to the City of Tampa. A push from the Ybor City Development Authority kept this key project front and center in its Vision Plan, calling the transformation of these streets “central to the area’s redevelopment and a catalyst and incentive for infilling vacant and underutilized land.”

So where did the funding come from? Cleverly, former District 7 Florida Department of Transportation Director Ken Hartmann planned a lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in 2004 when then-FDOT Secretary José Abreu was visiting from Tallahassee. After the meal, Hartmann purposely walked Abreu to the critical corner, got whooshed by a couple of oil tankers, and $5 million in state funding fell into place.

The new improved (and resurfaced) streets will boast granite curbs, historic lighting, landscaping with tree grates and irrigation, benches, sidewalks, bike paths, on-street parking from 3rd Avenue to 10th Avenue and real brick crosswalks and corner bulbouts (curb extensions) to make it safer and easier to cross the street.

Several high-quality, high-visibility projects have already popped up along these routes. The Box Factory, a block-long condo development which respects the original brick factory with its series of huge windows, creates a rhythm along 2nd Avenue and houses historic yet hip residences.

The Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory at Third Avenue and 22nd is an impeccable restoration of the 1903 three-story cigar factory with a shiny white cupola on top, built so that the early owners could spy a ship landing with fresh tobacco. The careful work of contractor Robert Holsopple has protected the original wooden floors, some pricked by holes from pitchforks used to shovel the tobacco and stained a deep brown from decades of tobacco leaves piled there.

The original glass windows were all salvaged by the owners and reused, and the pièce de resistance is the boardroom table, made with original flooring from the basement and supported by gear pieces from ancient cigar machinery and the elevator flywheel.

My dad owned an old cigar factory in West Tampa on Howard Avenue and Cypress, the one with the tower, which served as a clothing manufacturing plant and retail men’s store. The residual scent of the tobacco, the rich coloration of the bricks, the thick trusses and the enormous windows with their heavy black shutters are powerful memories from my childhood. My deepest thanks to the Carlos Fuente family for investing their love and money in such an impressive restoration.

Just up 22nd Street, past the funky car repair lots and shotgun homes, sits a preservation miracle: the Ferlita Macaroni Factory. Four years ago this roofless building was slated for demolition. Ironically, the owners were a roofing company, but they had totally neglected this blond brick, columned structure.

Enter Joseph Capitano, who has acted as a preservation angel investor, stabilizing the property, with a little help from the City’s CRA Fund, until a private investor, John Rosende appeared. He brilliantly saved the building, adding a contemporary second floor and cleverly repurposing this shell into his TMD Showroom for windows, doors and moldings. His second-floor balcony boasts a glamorous view to the harbor.

Then the problem child. On the iconic corner of Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street, the walls of the Masonic Lodge, owned by Andres Callen, are propped up awaiting their next act. A fire in 2008 destroyed the building’s center, and a hastily convened SWAT team of city fire officials, inspectors, lawyers, City Council members and Richard Gonzmart, the Columbia Restaurant’s owner and across 22nd Street neighbor, collaborated to salvage the Lodge’s walls. Unfortunately, it still sits, morosely draped in black netting, as if in mourning. Please, Andre, sell it or invest in it. Don’t let it sit there like a wallflower at the party till it crumbles, all forlorn.

Clearly the future depends on enlightened self-interest — people willing to take a risk and invest here. John Rosende summarized, “When the opportunity to own a piece of history in Ybor City presented itself, the decision was clear. Everyone who has been to the preserved Historic Ferlita Macaroni Factory loves it, and our decision to preserve an old falling-down building in a down economy has done nothing but positive things for our business and its future.”

A former member of Tampa City Council (1987-2010), Linda Saul-Sena currently serves on the board of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and the Livable Roadways Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

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