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Downtown Panel Looks At Good, Bad, Ugly

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By JANIS D. FROELICH

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TAMPA - With their banner in place announcing ``Mr. Empanada Coming Soon,'' David Alvarez and Elliott Acosta are busy building a restaurant to open Dec. 1 at 608 N. Franklin St.

``We're ready to go,'' Alvarez said Monday, taking a break outside in the autumn sun. ``All we can do is hope this downtown location will be good for us.''

What causes his hesitation is that the restaurant will be next to one of downtown's biggest eyesores: the deserted Maas Bros. department store.

The condemned building can't be demolished too soon for the Mr. Empanada team. ``It smells musty and is dangerous,'' Acosta said.

Although the Mr. Empanada eatery is a sign of downtown growth, the Maas Bros. site and dozens of other boarded- up buildings are its past.

Reconciling the two was among the topics at the Downtown Vision Plan Community Forum on Oct. 14, when about 250 people gathered at Tampa Preparatory School to discuss the assets and liabilities of downtown.

``It's ugly coming into downtown Tampa,'' Thom Stork, president of The Florida Aquarium, told forum participants.

All isn't bleak, however. The number of office workers is on the upswing. According to the Downtown Tampa Partnership, the figure was 51,460 in 2000, but expected to be 58,120 by 2005.

If all of the residential development plans work out, the number could be as high as 110,115 by 2025, including people living and working downtown.

Downtown Needs Life

But 2025 is a long time off to see vibrancy in downtown Tampa. A trio of lunch-breakers on Monday said they hope for a big change sooner.

``People make a beeline to head straight home after work,'' said Alec Hall, a federal public defender sharing Italian food with two friends, Erik Curry of Syniverse Technology and Herman Floyd with the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Curry said that when he moved to Tampa from New York City five years ago he was shocked how dead the downtown streets were. ``There's still no residential. And it's like the Indy 500 getting out of here at night,'' he said.

``If we just had some place to socialize for awhile after work,'' Curry said. ``But nobody is compelled to stay.''

The forum participants concurred, and offered hope in a wish list for downtown: restore historic structures for mixed use; extend the streetcar into downtown; and link the areas with a continuous riverwalk route along the Hillsborough River.

Stork, as others, emphasized a sustained vision is needed from mayor to mayor if downtown is to reach its potential.

Input On Vision Plan Sought

There also has to be public involvement, forum leaders said.

``We're on the brink of major redevelopment,'' said Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick. ``It's just too important to not get community thoughts.''

As part of the vision plan, Taylor Yewell worked on a downtown market analysis. Describing the Tampa market as ``hot,'' he said residential development could reach 5,000 units in the next five years.

``The weak office market is showing signs of recovery,'' Yewell said, mentioning projects such as The Arlington and the Hillsborough River Tower, residential/office complexes in various stages of development.

Bob Glaser, president and chief executive officer of Tampa Realtors Smith & Associates, said once residential property is up and running ``everything else is going to happen.''

But the consensus from the residential group was that downtown needs low- to moderate-priced housing.

``Homes create a place,'' said Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who led the proposed Civitas effort to revitalize areas near downtown. ``We really need a mixture of types, not big condos.''

Stephanie Ferrell, a historical renovation architect, said the north end, with a number of old buildings, is a plus because developers will have something real to work with. ``New neighborhoods shouldn't be contrived,'' she said.

A marketing strategy needs to be in place, the group agreed. The notion of downtown being unsafe also must be addressed.

Blannie Whelan, 52, plans to sell her Cracker-style home in South Tampa and become a resident at the Arts Center Lofts now under construction.

``I love downtowns,'' she said. She said she would feel better, though, if the parks were more people-friendly. She would like to see a place to store kayaks.

To offer opinions for the Downtown Vision Plan, go to www.tampasdowntown.com www.tampasdowntown.comor call (813) 221-3686.

Reporter Janis D. Froelich can be reached at (813) 259-7143.

This story can be found at: http://www.tampatrib.com/News/MGBEC4W2K0E.html

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