From decay to 'drinking mall' Comeback? Tampa's Ybor City, once the "Cigar Capital of the World," was a crumbling ghost town 25 years ago. It has since come back as a thriving bar and club area, but some residents don't like the results.

Sun Journal

April 30, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- A century ago, Ybor City was a thriving industrial area, the "Cigar Capital of the World." Twenty-five years ago, it was a ghost town, filled with crumbling, vacant buildings.

It now has come back to life, thanks to bars and cavernous clubs on Seventh Avenue, the area's central boulevard, that have in effect created a regional drinking mall. But some residents are questioning whether this aggressive mix of private enterprise and public policy is appropriate or even workable.

Is a lively bar scene a true revival, or just lively destruction of an historic area? "They market this whole thing like it's 'Florida's Bourbon Street.' " says Rick Melby, an artist who lives in Ybor. "This is one of the most prominent and historical districts in the area and this is what they do to it?"

Ybor City, one of only three historic districts in Florida and a long-established part of Tampa, lies just north of downtown. City officials say that anything, even a temporarily unbalanced retail district, is better than letting Ybor City fall to pieces, as it was well on the way to doing.

"It has not been easy for residents here," says Joe Howden, another artist who lives in the neighborhood, and who is on the board of the Ybor City Development Corp. He helped create the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association two years ago to represent the 3,000 or so people who live in the area.

"I have real concerns about a historic district being used as an entertainment district," he says. "I have a concern about how far you can push neon lights on brick buildings."

It's an energetic place on a Saturday night, no question about it -- as many as 40,000 people jam Seventh Avenue every weekend. Live music spills from the clubs, and street vendors and acrobats mix with the sidewalk crowds.

City officials and others are betting that the market will correct itself, with a little regulatory push here and there. What has been accomplished, they say, is an urban success story: the preservation -- without large injections of government money -- of the area created in 1885 by the cigar maker Don Vicente Martinez Ybor.

Don Vicente Martinez Ybor was a Spaniard who moved to Cuba when he was 14, left the island and in the 1880s came to Florida. He bought 40 acres of land from the city of Tampa. Already famous as the maker of Prince of Wales cigars, Ybor proceeded to build a planned industrial community that included cigar factories and homes for workers. Thus, Ybor City.

It began turning out cigars, and other cigar makers quickly arrived. In 1887, Tampa annexed the area.

It began to falter during the Depression; by the 1960s, the downward slide had accelerated. The building of Interstate 4, the road linking Tampa and Orlando, severed Ybor City from the neighborhoods that had supported its commercial district -- indeed, many of the houses were razed.

The buildings on Seventh Avenue with their elaborate ironwork were neglected until they literally began to crumble onto the sidewalks. A few businesses prospered, but most deserted Ybor for commercial strips and the new suburban malls.

Then came the mid-'80s and Tampa's determination to act before Ybor City completely rotted away.

"We accomplished the main objective: Save the buildings," says Fernando Noriega, director of business and community services for Tampa. He acknowledges that much of the development so far has been bars and clubs but suggests it will change: "The market will saturate itself, and other types of businesses will come in."

"That's a big gamble, isn't it?" counters Mr. Howden. "How do you get rid of these wet-zonings [which allow the sale of alcohol]? What happens to that business later? It's going to become a shoestore?"

The answer to his question isn't clear, because the boom is still on.

In the past six years, 130 businesses have come to Ybor City and brought $40 million of investment, says Rebecca Gagalis, who was involved in Baltimore's redevelopment from 1978 through 1985 before moving to Tampa, and is now president of the Ybor City Development Corp. More projects are under construction -- but the emphasis is still on bars and restaurants.

That imbalance was unavoidable, say officials. To attract businesses, Tampa exempted the district in 1986 from an ordinance requiring alcohol-selling establishments to be at least 500 feet from a school or a church and more than 1,000 feet from another bar or restaurant selling alcohol.

The easing of the restrictions, coupled with the fact that at the time liquor licenses were hard to get elsewhere in Tampa, offered the boost the city wanted.

Bars and restaurants, Mr. Noriega and others say, had something else to recommend them to investors and property owners: They make money quickly. Even with eased restrictions and the depressed property values, the cost of bringing a building up to meet zoning codes was high.

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