Money may be available to build a new complex a block away, officials say.
By RON MATUS
Published May 16, 2003
Tear down Rembrandt, they said. Build a wall around it.
Ever since February, when someone fired a gun into the air between the Rembrandt Garden public housing complex and the Robinson High School softball fields, outraged Robinson parents have demanded something be done.
Now, serendipity is riding to the rescue.
If all goes as planned, the Tampa Housing Authority will close Rembrandt and replace it with a new $20-million, 220-unit complex a block away. The new complex, to be called the Gardens at South Bay, will cater to mixed-income residents as do other, modern public housing complexes.
Construction could begin next year, with an opening set for 2005.
The turn of events has more to do with happenstance than pressure from critics.
In April, the Housing Finance Authority of Hillsborough County, which allocates bond money to develop affordable housing, unexpectedly found itself with $13-million to distribute. A developer who had been awarded the money last year decided not to use it because of the shaky economy.
The Tampa Housing Authority, which owns Rembrandt, stepped up to get a piece.
"Luck. Coincidence. Right place, right time," is how housing authority asset manager Duane Davis described the opportunity.
Critics have called Rembrandt a drug den and a magnet for criminals, but many residents say the problem is more perception than reality. Nevertheless, after the gunfire incident, the Tampa Housing Authority promised things would improve once the federal government sent $6-million for renovations.
Many people said they couldn't wait. Some suggested a land swap between the housing authority and the Hillsborough County School Board, which owns 10 acres nearby. Build a better, newer, safer complex there, some said. But "unless the land came with dollars," the issue was moot, said Jerome Ryans, the housing authority's executive director.
Now, though, the dollars may come. And, ironically, it's because developers put on hold an affordable housing project slated to go near Rembrandt. Cornerstone Group Development of Coral Gables wants to build a 288-unit complex on an abandoned mulch distribution site just south of Rembrandt. It planned to use the bond money, which must be repaid.
But a soft market for that type of development prompted company officials to delay building.
So, in April, they gave the bond money back.
In response, the finance authority re-opened the allocation process.
On Monday, the housing authority convinced the School Board to tentatively back the land swap that had been discussed earlier. If the money comes, a site will be waiting.
The deal isn't done yet: One other developer applied by Tuesday's deadline. The finance authority will choose one next week.
If the housing authority isn't picked, it may try again later this year. If that attempt falls short, too, renovating Rembrandt remains an option.
The land deal hinges on the housing authority finding money for new digs.
Still, critics are thrilled at the prospect. So are many Rembrandt residents.
When Bruce Williams, president of the residents council, heard about the pot of money, he said he thought to himself, "This is the opportunity. It's time."
There is one potential downside: If the Gardens at South Bay is built, not everyone at Rembrandt will enjoy it.
Some 35 percent of apartments would be set aside for those who get public assistance and 55 percent would go to families who make $30,000 or less per year. The rest would be rented to anyone.
About 80 of Rembrandt's 152 low-income families would be eligible.
The others would either end up at Cutlass Arms, another complex in South Tampa undergoing renovations, or get vouchers to help pay rent at private apartments. They also could be assigned to public housing elsewhere.
"Everybody can't go there," Ryans said of the Gardens. But "our goal is to make sure they move into a better place than what they have."