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Quiet suburbs dread noisy development

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By MARLENE SOKOL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


TAMPA PALMS -- I open the door and it's all laid out like a scrumptious buffet.

Embroidered jeans that take me back to the 1970s. A sequined cocktail dress for that wedding in Miami. A silk blouse in just the right eggshell. And a toddler-sized tuxedo that will knock Grandma's socks off.

Picture frames, bedroom curtains, suede designer shoes. So much stuff, all at discount prices. In a store so compact, I'm back at my desk before they miss me. It's a working mother's fantasy.

But it isn't a dream: It's Stein Mart.

How could anybody not like Stein Mart, that Southern-bred brainchild of European immigrants who, as happens in good immigrant stories, built a thriving corporation from a pushcart? Why would anyone shop anywhere else? And who would not want a Stein Mart in their neighborhood?

Tampa Palms, that's who.

"Homeowners do not need an additional large store short-spaced behind the (City Plaza) shopping center, adding to the inconveniences homeowners already experience," writes Sophie Patnaude, president of the Sterling Manor Homeowner's Association.

"The noise from the loading docks, garbage pickup, and traffic tie-ups already diminish the value of Sterling Manor homes."

Bill Blount, who lives way on the other side of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, writes, "We opposed Walgreen's and we will oppose all other attempts to modify the quality of life we enjoy."

Noise? Traffic tie-ups? Quality of life? What about quality of shopping, and New Tampa's lack of any places to buy clothes?

Time for a visit.

City Plaza positively bustles at 10:30 a.m., from the Publix supermarket to the corner McDonald's -- which, by the way, also incurred hostility when it opened in 1996.

It's a good five-minute walk from the Sterling Manor gate, past a pond where a sign tells you "residents only" can fish. Next comes the shopping center service road, off-limits for soliciting, overnight parking, handbill distribution and skateboards.

The alley is quiet despite the presence of three trucks behind the Publix. But as you head toward the end that meets Bruce B. Downs, you can see how close the houses are to the white concrete wall, right against it in some places.

Michael Hoad, who lives in Sterling Manor and is about the most reasonable man in all of Tampa, says that even across the street, noise is a problem.

"All of the loading areas are just a fence away," he says. "You can hear the trucks, no question. It sounds like the trucks are right on your street." What's more, "that parking lot is already rough to get in and out of."

It's not unlike the fight five years ago when John Frost wanted to open the McDonald's here. "No one who lives here would want it here," one Tampa Palms woman told us then. "Do I want to hear "burgers and fries,' and smell it all day?"

You had to wonder: Could she really hear the squawk box and smell the grease? Or was she offended by the idea of tacky commercial development encroaching on her piece of paradise?

The answer is largely the latter.

Traffic has diminished the quality of life in New Tampa. But plenty of people will tell you they find the wholesale carving up of Bruce B. Downs more offensive.

It's hard to drive from Tampa Palms Boulevard to Cross Creek Boulevard without grimacing at the big box stores, fast food joints and relentless construction.

"If I wanted to live on Dale Mabry, I would have bought a house there," says Blount, who is ever more protective of southern Bruce B. Downs. "It's nice to have two miles of green in here."

He'll accept Stein Mart if it can be built without a major expansion of the shopping center. But should someone ask for more commercial space, he promises, "we'll go ballistic."

It might seem ironic that people will consign themselves to long car trips for consumer goods even as they moan about the traffic.

But you have to remember the expectation that comes with buying a home in New Tampa. It is, above all, an expectation that your subdivision is your oasis, your street is pristine and you can retire at day's end to a quiet lanai. Not a shortcut to some strip center or warehouse or taco haunt.

Blount knows people who have moved clear out to Pasco County to get away from the asphalt and neon. Driving is not a problem, he says. "Gas prices have not wiped out our income." His wife shops in Brandon.

And when Hoad needs clothes, he says, "I shop on the Web."

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