SoHo: Too much of a good thing? 

Growing pains in a booming district.

The South Howard District is humming with construction and clogged with traffic, even during these dog days of summer. The Epicurean Hotel will open in December with 137 rooms, spa, cooking school and bakery, wine shop, signature restaurant and rooftop bar. Up the street, 231 apartments at Post SoHo Square will open this fall, and a very controversial rezoning for 212 more apartments was just turned down.

Where is the balance point between vitality and misery?

It depends on whom you ask. Early-Sunday-morning joggers resting post-run at Bern’s Park enjoy the energy of density. A resident near The Other Side Antiques finds Howard “a great place to walk.” The dog owner near the Green Lemon was one of the protesters at the City Council meeting fearing that additional development would remove her side street parking.

Up until the 1950s, Howard Avenue was the western limit of the City of Tampa. The iconic Old Meeting House, now Daily Eats, was literally in Hillsborough County, and the street was lined with modest homes and businesses. Things heated up in the 1990s when small restaurants and bars began to pop up in old gas stations and unassuming storefronts.

Soon the rowdy crowds at MacDinton’s began spilling over the sidewalks, and adjacent watering holes joined in the intoxicated hilarity, driving the neighbors bonkers. Particularly in Courier City, the historic but unprotected area north of Swann Avenue and west of the Crosstown Expressway, folks complained that bar-hoppers blocked their driveways, used their front yards as restrooms, and generally behaved boorishly when the joints shut down at 3 a.m.

To solve the residents’ problems, City Council collaborated with the parking department and created special neighborhood parking permits for the locals. The arrangement worked, and is now replicated in the Channel District and Ybor City.

But the tension between SoHo bars and residents is evident whenever a new venture requests a liquor license. The bars’ challenge is providing adequate parking for their patrons and keeping the rowdiness to a minimum. Meanwhile, the success of the street scene on Howard and Platt has attracted young partyers who recognize the benefits of being able to walk home after a late and lively night; hence the proliferation of apartments close to the action.

Tampa City Council member Yolie Capin is working on an innovative route to peaceful co-existence. “We’ll reset our expectations that restaurants and bars will sell no alcohol after midnight, and then if someone wants a later closing time, they’ll have to negotiate concessions.” This idea jibes with state liquor laws and is being developed this summer, ready for spirited debate and tweaking in the fall.

Often in urban planning, a really bad development sparks widespread discontent and the neighbors demand better rules. The CVS drugstore at the northwest corner of Swann Avenue and Howard is a case in point. It was so typically suburban in design, with parking spaces lining this prominent corner, that it prompted new rules: namely, the South Howard Commercial Overlay District Design Standards, which require buildings to be placed next to sidewalks, street tree plantings, parking and drive-throughs to the rear, windows on the street, and prohibition of freestanding pylon signs. Better. Since the regulations were adopted, the other three corners of this key intersection have been completely rebuilt and are relatively more urban and attractive. The traffic challenge continues.

The Epicurean planners are voicing a willingness to work with surrounding neighborhoods. Speaking for Mainsail Lodging & Development, one of the investors in the Epicurean, VP for Sales and Marketing Norwood Smith explains the hotel’s vision. “We want to become South Tampa’s neighborhood hotel, where locals will be involved in and engaged with all that we offer from the culinary institute to our wine store. Our restaurant will offer outdoor seating, and all our shops will be accessed from the sidewalk, bringing a new level of activity to the street.”

But some neighbors don’t feel included. For over 10 years, a steadfast advocate for local residents has been Vicky Pollyea, president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association. She expressed her concern to city staff when they judged that no public hearing for the Epicurean was necessary, because the hotel’s proposed increase from 72 to 138 rooms was not significant enough to warrant public scrutiny. Nor was the loss of 10 townhouses, originally incorporated into the project specifically to buffer the adjacent homes.

She also was startled to learn that when the Post SoHo Apartments added more rooms there was no opportunity for public debate. She supports a balanced approach to growth, but wonders if the city administration cares about protecting the residents or offering them a serious place at the discussions about the area’s plans.

Fast forward to last month’s four-hour zoning hearing about the fate of Morrison Avenue and Howard’s northeast corner. Five neighborhoods showed up en masse to protest the proposed apartments, whose plans included waiving 75 percent of the public open space requirements, vacating a public street, and doubling the allowed density. The proposal was denied.

Cooperation is best represented by Bern’s Park. Jointly underwritten by private individual donations, the Laxer Family Foundation, neighborhood civic clubs and the City of Tampa, the park is an oasis of lush planting, a fountain and sculpture — and the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association pitches in with ongoing maintenance.

Everyone wants a zippy Howard: full of activity, shaded by trees, animated with activity. No one wants a parking lot stretching from Bayshore Boulevard to Kennedy. Okay, traffic planners and city staff … recognize that the neighbors and businesses need some solutions, and get to it! Maybe structured public parking. A parallel bike route. A jitney. A commitment to — and enforcement of — the existing rules.

With careful design and public money, this can work.

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