Crowd asks county leaders to stop I-275 widening

Opposition continues to grow against the proposed Tampa Bay Express lanes. Home and business owners are demanding the project, which would widen I-275 while demolishing dozens of nearby buildings, be taken off the table.  

Wearing anti-TBX stickers, members of the Sunshine Citizens group made emotional pleas at Tuesday night's Metropolitan Planning Organization board meeting, asking the members to stand with them and not with the Florida Department of Transportation so pieces Tampa history will not be destroyed.

The TBX project is aimed at cutting congestion. But, it would also cut through communities like Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights.

The building on the corner of North Franklin and East Kay Streets in Tampa Heights has stood there for more than a century. Its Café Hey has grown into a staple of the community.

"A lot of people come here for food or the coffee, but essentially, it's a place that brings people together," said owner Cheong Choi.

But, if its neighbor to the south, Interstate 275, grows as well, the café and the entire building would be among those demolished.

While he was unable to make it to the meeting, there were plenty of voices speaking for him.

"Whoever's against it, can you guys all stand up?" asked Manny Leto, one of the people speaking against TBX at Tuesday night's MPO meeting.
It was a packed house. Since there were more than 30 speakers lined up, the board gave each of them just one minute to say their peace.

"Why are we destroying our history when we should be fighting tooth and nail to save it? You can't replace these buildings. We are losing our soul. Tampeños are fighting mad and we are not going to take this lying down," said Tampa native Mario Nunez.

"Like building 18 roads of toll lanes is going to fix congestion? That's absurd," said Mitt Patel.

"I can tell you that if my employees ever listened to my direction or our clients' direction and did the complete opposite, you would be fired immediately," said Stan Lasater, President of Southeast Seminole Heights.

The MPO has previously voted in favor of including TBX in its 5-year transportation program. But, even if Express lanes are not ultimately constructed, FDOT says the downtown interchange still must be rebuilt.

"It has to be rebuilt. And really, the right of way we need is for the rebuilding of the downtown interchange," said FDOT Spokesperson Kris Carson. "We are going to have a larger public meeting in the Spring. We want to see if the express lanes happen, how can we alleviate the concerns for the public? How can we all come together to build trails or basketball courts or whatever it might be to bring the communities together with this interstate project?"

Commissioner Kevin Beckner did get applause from those at the meeting after saying, "If our expectations are not met and this doesn't meet my approval, I am not going to support it at the end."

Cheong Choi still went ahead with plans to have artists paint a "Tampa Heights" mural on the outside wall of Café Hey facing I-275, knowing very well, it too, could become a pile of bricks.

"The citizens of Tampa really don't want this," Choi said. "I would really like to stay in this building because it's the building I grew up in since the early 80's. But, if it's not a reality and it's not possible, I will have to find other ways to survive."

At this point the TBX project is still in the community input process. The MPO board is expected to get an updated report in the spring, with their next action scheduled for June.