Shiny Quarter

May 2, 2007

When the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) initiated planning for the reconstruction of 3.7 miles of I-4 through Tampa, it resolved to use an approach that also would contribute to the revitalization of Ybor City, Tampa’s “Latin Quarter.”

When the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) initiated planning for the reconstruction of 3.7 miles of I-4 through Tampa, it resolved to use an approach that also would contribute to the revitalization of Ybor City, Tampa’s “Latin Quarter.”

Although downtown Ybor City, a national historic landmark district, is known for its lively music scene, flamenco dancers and hand-rolled cigars, the residential section to the north had become plagued by crime, drugs and deteriorating buildings. FDOT sought to leverage the project to bridge this aesthetic, economic and cultural divide; thus the aesthetic features and historical mitigation on this project exceed those of all prior highway projects in Florida.

The design features large decorative lights, extensive brickwork on walls and road surfaces, a fountain the size of a U.S. football field under a bridge and arched panel facades on the larger bridges—all keyed to the historic culture of Ybor City. As part of the mitigation for disturbing historic areas, the project identified 35 historic houses for relocation and rehabilitation, sparking a resurgence of the entire community north of the interstate.

Obeying the master

Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) provided design and construction engineering services on the $158 million I-4 project, which replaces the functionally obsolete four-lane highway with a new six-lane highway. A wide median allows for additional lanes, and a 64-ft multimodal corridor lays the groundwork for possible high-occupancy vehicle lanes or high-speed rail in the future. The project extends from 14th Street in Ybor City to 50th Street.

The biggest project ever let for construction in FDOT District Seven, the project traces its history to the Tampa Interstate Study, which was initiated in 1987 with the goal of developing an interstate master plan that could carry FDOT and Tampa into the 21st century. Through public meetings, a speakers’ bureau, newsletters and numerous advisory committees, the study identified the need for a four-roadway system.

The plan identified community-wide needs, such as pedestrian connectivity, and specific neighborhood needs, such as complementing historical settings. The metropolitan planning organization adopted the master plan in 1989. After completion of the environmental documentation phase, design began in 1994 only to be put on hold after two years for lack of funding. The project received funding in 1998, and committees, agency representatives and the community resumed coordination efforts to implement environmental mitigation. Construction commenced in 2004 and is scheduled for completion in 2007.

First for everything

When I-4 was originally constructed some 45 years ago, it divided Ybor City’s residential north side from its cultural and business center to the south. Many believe this division contributed to the north side’s deterioration. Thus FDOT and the public were particularly sensitive to minimizing effects of the reconstruction project.

During the planning phase of the project, President Bill Clinton signed the executive order referred to as “Environmental Justice.” In response, FDOT produced an environmental impact statement (EIS) that was the first U.S. DOT EIS to address environmental justice and the first document in the southeastern U.S. to carry two preferred alternatives—one a cost-feasible alternative and the other a long-range preferred alternative. The EIS was accompanied by the largest Section 106 process and agreement the U.S. DOT had ever undertaken.

A cultural call

A set of urban design guidelines addressing community interests was developed for the interstate system and given to the designers. A design review committee was set up that included a multidisciplinary team with representatives from agencies responsible for constructing and maintaining the facility. A cultural resources committee (CRC) was established that included local, state and federal historic agencies and interested parties, including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the National Park Service, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Barrio Latino Commission and local not-for-profit organizations.

Initially, the CRC was tasked with assisting with the Section 106 and 4(f) processes. The committee worked together with the input of many to reduce the number of affected historic structures, seek technical avoidance options such as changing the locations of retention ponds and minimizing the overall disruption to the landmark district. As a result of the process, a three-party memorandum of agreement (MOA) was signed by ACHP, the state historic preservation officer (SHPO) and FHWA in 1996. The MOA requires the FHWA, with FDOT acting as its agent, to fund the relocation and rehabilitation of 35 historic structures.

Bending for buildings

PB helped coordinate a four-year public involvement process that included newsletters, an ongoing speakers’ bureau and public meetings. Two special-focus workshops were held as part of the Section 106 process to obtain information and input on the community’s assessment of its historic resources. The CRC worked with the SHPO and local historians to evaluate the significance of historic buildings to the community and make tough decisions concerning which buildings should be avoided and which could be impacted by the project.

To avoid numerous historic buildings in the Ybor City National Historic Landmark District, the CRC modified the preferred alternative by relocating retention ponds and making slight modifications to the roadway alignment. The three-party MOA not only requires mitigation for those historic buildings that were located within the proposed roadway right-of-way, but also requires consideration of the effects on the remaining historic properties that would be adjacent to the interstate. Offensive noises and sights were both addressed through the incorporation of noise walls and the design of the walls and other aesthetically compatible pedestrian-level treatments.

To achieve capacity improvements and avoid going through the costly right-of-way process twice, it was determined that the outside portion of the four-roadway plan adopted in the master plan could be constructed. All right-of-way, including pond storage for later improvements, would be purchased in an effort to reduce the cost of future construction. Furthermore, construction would allow for later improvements with little effect on the community since it would be contained within the median.

Your signature here

The final design of the I-4 reconstruction project bridges the requirements of 21st century transportation and the needs of historic Ybor City’s residents and visitors. Bridge spans were lengthened to accommodate pedestrians. In some cases, such as 21st/22nd Street, the bridge will span the entire area, opening it up to reconnect Ybor’s north and south sides.

The project incorporates design elements that are part of the history of the neighborhood, such as brick knee walls with black metal fencing and intersections paved with historic brick. Ybor’s signature five-globe lights line a four-tiered fountain that features spillovers and sprays that will be lighted at night. Landscaping buffers the walls of the elevated roadway and accents the wide pedestrian-friendly underpasses.

Altogether, 35 buildings located in the new right-of-way were relocated and 34 have been rehabilitated. Sixteen buildings were relocated to a single block to recreate the look of historic Ybor, and a brick alley using historic bricks was constructed to provide rear-access parking while maintaining historic setbacks. All of the buildings have been sold. As a result of these restoration efforts, Tampa’s Department of Historic Preservation for Architectural Review has observed a significant interest in the area, including an increase in applications for rehabilitation and new construction.

Please don’t interrupt

One of FDOT’s key goals was to minimize disruption to the community during construction. For example, traffic flow has been maintained by limiting lane closures to nighttime hours. Detours were allowed only on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights so that they would not interfere with Ybor’s entertainment district. Relocation of historic homes was completed mostly during daytime hours to reduce disurbance both to residents’ evening relaxation and sleep and the entertainment district’s active nightlife.

After years of providing comments, the public is seeing the project become reality. In addition to providing a safe highway and efficient use of resources, the I-4 reconstruction project is enhancing the cohesion and aesthetics of the community and ensuring a bright future for its residents.

About The Author: Szatynski is roadway department manager with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Tampa. Ortega is a public involvement specialist with PB.

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