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Area gets a lift by old homes on the move

Homes relocated to make way for a highway are rehabilitated to revitalize an area plagued by vacant lots and abandoned homes.

JOHN BALZ
Published May 9, 2003

TAMPA - When builder Jerry Riski opened a condemned two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow on E 15th Avenue last summer, the signs of squatters overwhelmed. Dressers filled with clothes, a stove overturned, needles and condoms strewn across the floor, calendars tacked to the walls.

"We hauled away a Dumpster's worth of junk," said Riski, a supervisor with South-Co Building Contractors Inc.

Almost a year later, the 1,296-square-foot house with hardwood floors, built-in bookcases and bead board kitchen walls is on the market. The asking price: $138,000.

The 93-year-old home was one of 35 structures the state relocated and rehabilitated to make room for the widening of Interstate 4, currently under construction. All but two fall within Ybor City's National Landmark District.

Members of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Hillsborough County's top transportation agency, toured the area Tuesday morning. They wanted to see first-hand the fruits of a project aimed at revitalizing an area plagued by vacant lots and abandoned homes.

The heart of the preservation project is a reconstructed block between 19th and 20th streets, just south of Columbus Avenue.

Once the St. Benedict's Convent, the block now consists of 21 homes, most moved from their original locations a few hundred yards away on E 14th Avenue. As required by architectural review standards, the relocated homes had to face their original directions. The idea was to re-create the design and the feeling of an old Ybor block.

Most of the homes were built between 1895 and 1930. The Federal Highway Administration, as part of the I-4 widening project, allocated $8-million to move and fix up the homes and erect a sound barrier. Because the project disrupted a historic district, the government had to cover the costs.

Each house cost between $150,000 and $180,000 to restore, said Elaine Illes, a consultant to the Florida Department of Transportation who led the tour. The hope is that by offering affordable homes people will return to the area.

One of the neighborhood's largest residences is undergoing restoration at 1720 E 15th Ave. The Mediterranean Revival originally stood at 1518 E 14th Ave.

Built in 1932 for the medical director for the Centro Espanol Latin Club, the house features yellow brick imported from Spain.

Over the years, the surrounding street fell into disrepair and blight. "Terrible," is how council member Linda Saul-Sena described the condition of the homes.

The Department of Transportation was required to move the homes rather than demolish them. Officials estimated all of the homes should be restored by next summer . Each one includes a plaque posted in the yard that notes the home's original address.

Once a house is finished, FDOT transfers the deed to the city of Tampa, which sells it. Proceeds from the sales will go into a trust fund to be used for historic projects in Ybor City, Tampa Heights and the West Tampa.

One member of the tour, Val Picciantra, assistant director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, even recognized one of the structures - the three-bedroom, pitched-roof house in which his father was born.

"I didn't even realize it until I looked at the columns," he said.

- For information about the Ybor homes, call Tampa's Housing and Community Development Department at 274-5626.

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