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City begins to take a careful look at its face

sandra thompson
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© St. Petersburg Times
published May 4, 2002

I'd picked up my daughter from the airport, and we were driving home on West Shore Boulevard, a familiar route for her, and as we were entering Sunset Park she suddenly cried, "What is that?"

Well, what it was is something those of us in South Tampa are pretty much used to by now: a very big house.

As we drove around that weekend, she also commented on the style of the new buildings, residential and commercial. "They're all Mediterranean," she said, which is only almost true. "Why do they want Tampa to look like a resort, like Miami or Sarasota?"

I use my daughter as a barometer of where the city is going, because she has been away for five years and comes home only about once a year. So the things we may not notice as Tampa incrementally changes hit her in the face.

And what she saw she didn't especially like.

But this year, she's in good company.

It seems that all of a sudden, we're talking -- actually talking -- about what we want our city to look like.

It is such a basic thing: the way a city looks. "I love Paris," "I left my heart in San Francisco," and so on are odes to a city based not on its business-friendly tax structure or the size of its stadiums, but on the way the city looks.

Finally, we're looking before we leap into the mistakes of the past. Downtown, razing historic buildings like the wonderful minareted courthouse that went down in the 1950s, and erecting office towers with no open space; letting Ybor City become a bar crawl; and, in South Tampa's neighborhoods, giving owners the go-ahead to get variances for just about anything they asked for, as long as they wanted it.

The only neighborhoods that seem to be left unscathed are the historic ones like Hyde Park, and even they are in the middle of a debate about what they want to look like.

Should new construction mimic the old, or is there a place for contemporary design? One philosophy effectively freezes a place in time, as in Colonial Williamsburg. The other moves ahead, so that new design can add to the visual interest of a place as well as clearly differentiate the new from what is really old. I prefer the latter stance, although it opens things up for what's awful as well as wonderful.

The Barrio Latino in Ybor City has already committed to incorporate the new, yet when it came to a project on the site of the old Blue Ribbon grocery, it balked. In Hyde Park, the debate was sparked when the Architectural Review Commission shot down the ultra-contemporary design of a studio to be built there -- and it was behind the house.

In the meantime, South Tampa residents have complained so much about massive new houses that the city has held two public workshops on the subject, with more to come.

Yet, size -- something that could be regulated with new zoning rules -- is not the only problem. It may not even be the most significant problem.

"What are you trying to do?" asked urban planner Gene Boles at a workshop a few weeks ago in South Tampa. Limiting size is missing the point, he said. It imposes a suburban standard on an urban area. "Maybe taking up the lot is okay here."

Look at the relationship of the house to the street, he exhorted, put the garage in the back and preserve private open space, so the house does not impinge on the one next door.

He cited his block, with which I'm familiar, and when he did, I thought of a 4,300-square-foot house built there a few years ago on a not-large (60-foot) lot among the smaller 1920s bungalows. It's a beautiful house, but, more important, it fits beautifully into the block. And I suspect this is why: The owner is an architect, one who looked before he built.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.

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