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Sheriff: Close Ybor street
Preservationists protest the idea, but the City Council is swayed by vague talk of danger.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
"People say this is exaggerated," Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said. "These threats are real."
TAMPA - Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee stood before City Council members Thursday clutching a report from the Department of Homeland Security he said detailed all the dangers that could befall his operations center in Ybor City.
But he wouldn't tell them what it said.
"I don't think it's responsible for me to expose our vulnerabilities," Gee said.
Instead, he asked the council to let him close off 20th Street, which borders the center, from Palm to Eighth avenues.
The Barrio Latino Commission, assigned to protect the historic fabric of Ybor City, advised against it. Neighborhood leaders protested it. City Council members questioned it, but didn't get many answers.
In the end, the council voted 5-1 to let him gate it off.
Two sides argued they had something to protect.
Preservationists said Ybor City's street grid is as integral to the historic character of the district as its cigar factories.
Gee said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, his office recognized a threat to "critical infrastructure" inside his complex at 2008 E Eighth Ave. He wouldn't get specific, but said his communication facilities and command and control are within the building.
With a temporary city permit, his office put up concrete blockades at Palm and Eighth avenues that remain today. Now, the Sheriff's Office has acquired abuilding next door, across from 20th Street.
So last year, the sheriff submitted his plans to permanently gate off the street between the buildings and put a barrier around both properties.
If the Sheriff's Office ever leaves the block, the street will return to the city - gates removed, lighting, streets and curbs intact.
The Barrio Latino Commission recommended against it 5-2. The City staff looked to the National Park Service for guidance, which gave examples of the blockades in front of the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
"It's the Capitol for crying out loud, not Ybor City," said Eric Schiller, who owns Gaspar's Grotto. For months, he and neighbors have stood at the barricades with signs that read "Stop the lies."
He said a security threat would have already presented itself, contending that "any old truck bomb" could use other surrounding roads.
Council member John Dingfelder interrupted him: "I'm going to urge you not to give anybody ideas."
Gee said he wants to protect the pedestrians walking between both buildings. The sheriff said dangers exist apart from explosives but didn't say if the office had received specific threats.
"People say this is exaggerated," Gee said. "These threats are real."
The council took his word for it.
Even council member Mary Mulhern, who is opposed to closing off streets, made an exception: "There are so many other areas that have been closed off for less important things. This is a necessary thing to do."
The only dissenter was Linda Saul-Sena, who emphasized the importance of connectivity in her vision of Ybor as an urban village, with residential and commercial uses instead of government-owned campuses.
After the hearing, Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, was disappointed.
"In this country, a lot of scare tactics are thrown out in the name of national security and it's slowly chipping away at our rights," he said. "And unfortunately, it has started to chip away at our historic district."