Neighborhood transformation and historic preservation in Tampa Heights

A decade ago, Hope Donnelly purchased and restored the 99-year-old Rialto Theater on North Franklin Street, the business district of Tampa Heights, Tampa’s first suburb.

“It was quite a ghost town,” Donnelly recalls. “You can park anywhere. You can walk across the street without looking.

“You might see weeds here and there,” she jokes.

Among the few businesses on this stretch, she says, are the Florida School of Woodworking and Oceanic Supermarket, a popular Asian grocery store that has been located on the corner of Franklin and Kay streets since the 1980s.

Hope Donnelly, owner of the Rialto Theater in Tampa Heights (Photo by Photo Bohemia).The Rialto, which screened movies and performed live shows, closed in 1950. For the next six decades, it served as a warehouse for an auto shop. Donnelly rents the beautifully restored building for weddings, coming-of-age parties and other events.

Over the past 10 years, other businesses, including brewery Hidden Springs Ale Works, have come to Franklin Street north of I-275, a stretch known as Yellow Brick Row because of the color of the brick on historic buildings. The North Franklin Street corridor was designated a historic district in 2010 and the new owners who moved in restored and preserved the buildings.

“The building owners have done a brilliant job of making sure their buildings have a historic designation, so hopefully this will prevent them from demolishing and building a 30-story building on top,” says Karen Kress, senior director of transportation. And planning for the Downtown Tampa Partnership, which works to preserve and use buildings that have been on this stretch since the early 1900s.

She loves the variety of murals that adorn buildings in the area, including one of Dorothy and her friends from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I think any time there’s a visible creative community, it makes the area great,” Chris says.

Change comes, businesses boom, housing prices rise, and demand rises

Donnelly says her timing was perfect, and that she was “just a little ahead of the curve by luck.”
The year after Rialto bought it, Water Works Park opened, and the Gonzmart family, owners of the Columbia Restaurant Group, renovated the old pump house next door and opened the popular Ulele restaurant. Then came the rebar work. The sprawling event space and upscale food hall were created from a renovated streetcar garage. It was opened in 2018.

Everywhere, change is happening. On Florida Street, the next street east of Franklin, a 321-unit apartment building is under construction, continuing the trend toward a lower downtown. The Pearl Apartments near Armature Works opened in 2018. The YMCA plans to build a new building at Palm and Florida Avenues. The Sprouts Farmers Market on Seventh Avenue opens in 2021.

Homes make up most of the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Its boundaries are Interstate 275 to the south and east, N Boulevard to the west, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the north. As happened in Seminole Heights, the old neighborhood to the north, new residents bought vacant land and built new homes or renovated old Craftsman and bungalow-style homes.

Home prices there have skyrocketed, says Donnelly, who also owns an art consulting company, 8-Count Productions.

“People could buy a house 10 or 15 years ago for less than $100,000, and now you can’t touch anything for (less than) $400,000 or $500,000 easily,” she says.
Callie Rabot, florist, plant artist and owner of Blue House Florals, says she and her husband, Paul Rabot, feel lucky to move to Tampa Heights four years ago. Callie Rabot, owner of Blue House Florals, and her family moved to Tampa Heights four years ago. (Devin with Reason/Introduced by Callie Rabot).

“There is no way we could live where we live now,” she says.

They live two blocks north of the engine works. She loves the proximity to the Riverwalk, the fact that she and her husband can bike their two young children to school, the grocery store, nearby parks and events in downtown Tampa. Paul Rabot, a biology professor at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City, was riding his bike to work, so they managed to destroy one of their cars.

“It’s a really special place,” she says.

Maintain the yellow brick row

As heights change, it’s important to protect and preserve Yellow Brick Row, Chris says. As she noted in a previous interview, it is the preserved historic structures that give the place character and authenticity, setting it apart from “anywhere else in the USA.”

She is cautiously optimistic about the future. Part of the problem, she says, is that Tampa Heights is not located within a community redevelopment district, which allows a percentage of the higher taxes to be used to improve infrastructure in the community.

“So we have this flaw that we need to figure out. It’s not really the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. The sidewalks are collapsing in some places. “There are really no trees on the streets, there are a lot of opportunities that we identified in the plan,” Chris says, referring to the historic preservation plan for the Franklin Street Corridor downtown. “We just have to know what the financing mechanisms are.”

The Tampa Downtown Partnership service area, which works to improve the downtown community, focuses on the Tampa Heights business district and extends to Palm Avenue. But the partnership has limited funds to allocate to the area’s infrastructure needs, Chris says. She adds that the answer may be to expand the current CRA to cover the region.

Kate Swan, founder of the Florida School of Woodworking, moved into the historic building on Yellow Brick Row in 2009, when it seemed desolate. But more businesses started coming to North Franklin and the area became very vibrant, Swan says, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She says that the matter is starting to return now with the development of the region.

She says it all started with the Riverwalk extension under the I-275 bridge.

“That was a big turning point, and the rebar business came after that,” she says.

As for her work, she says it has been an amazing journey.

“We have probably the most famous (furniture) makers in the United States coming to us and teaching here. So we have an incredible reputation. I know I’m biased, but it’s been great to watch that develop. “I think there’s still a lot of potential to be had in “This neighborhood.”

Hay Foundation

Suki Choi, whose grandfather started Oceanic Supermarket more than 40 years ago, says the business — with a wide selection of Asian products — has thrived for many years, attracting customers from all over West Central Florida. But new development in downtown Tampa and Tampa Heights has had a welcome impact.

Suki Choi, whose grandfather started Oceanic Supermarket in Tampa Heights more than 40 years ago.“It attracts more customers,” she says.

Her brother, Cheung Choi, opened Hai Café in 2007. “Hey, actually, it’s the word in Cantonese for happiness,” he says, explaining the name. The small sandwich shop is located on the eastern Franklin Street side of the Oceanic Building, where murals adorn the long facade.

“At that time it was very quiet here,” he says. “We were able to establish ourselves quite easily. There was no one else here, which allowed us to do a lot of weird artistic things that no one bothered us about.”

Business has picked up with the new development. As he watches Tampa Heights transform, he says, “What I hope is that there will be a space for people who want to invest large amounts of money, but also for people who are just starting out, trying to make a little money.” Space is here.

“It’s a very small neighborhood, so it doesn’t seem like you can keep building, building, building,” he says.

For more information, go to Tampa Downtown Partnership.

(tags for translation) Tampa Heights

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