TBX could displace Tampa couple for a second time

Posted at 6:56 PM, Jun 21, 2016

Joanne Lopez of Seminole Heights will tell you she’s blessed with a home, garden and her husband, Felix, of 60 years.

But uncertainty – the kind you can hear humming through her backyard trees – makes all that difficult to enjoy.

The uncertainty stems from Tampa Bay Express, or TBX, a $6 billion Florida Department of Transportation project to widen I-275 with tolled express lanes. Dozens of families sit in the red zone – properties the state plans to purchase and demolish to make way for the highway.

What makes the Lopez’s story unique is that this is the second time an interstate has intersected with their lives.

Felix, 90, and Joanne, 87, took over her parents’ grocery store when they were a young couple. Joanne’s father, Sam Cacciatore, opened it when having a vowel at the end of your name made it tough to thrive in this city.

“That’s why there were so many little grocery stores. They figured, common sense would tell you, people have to eat and there used to be a grocery store on every corner and maybe in the middle of the block, too, but everybody ate,” Joanne Lopez said.

They worked on North Tampa Street what felt like 40-hour days to be successful.

What properties will TBX impact?

If built, TBX will stretch well beyond the core of Tampa pictured below. The full scope of the project's impact — the number homes and businesses it will displace — isn't yet clear. FDOT says any list of properties involved could change. This spring, FDOT told ABC Action News it planned to buy the properties in red below. Land in orange contains a portion of property the state plans to acquire. The state already owns properties in blue.
FDOT says it hasn't developed maps of TBX's impact beyond this area.

“We were respected,” Joanne Lopez said. “I guess you get what you give in life. We respected the people who came in and they respected us.”

The Lopez couple’s respect wasn’t re-payed by the state in the 1960s when the first interstate cut through Tampa. Sam’s Gator Food store was smack dab in the way.

“I remember we never got any papers from the state road department that they were taking our store over,” Felix Lopez said. “In those days, never.”

Losing their store left the couple $8,000 in debt, money they borrow from the bank to set up shop again in West Tampa.

“What do they say? When you get lemons in life, make lemonade,” Joanne Lopez said. “My husband does not like lemonade but I do.”

That’s when they were young and could start over. Now that they’re 87 and 90 years old, and struggling with heart problems and diabetes, the interstate threatens their health and not just their business.

“I don’t want to leave here – that is just like telling me go over there and die,” Joanne Lopez said. “I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that.”

The Florida Department of Transportation says homeowners will be compensated, relocated and treated with care. FDOT officials turned down interview questions for this story.

The Metropolitan Planning Board votes Wednesday on whether or not to greenlight TBX.

Sixteen members vote on the MPO board. Five of them paid are executives, including TIA’s Joe Lopano and the Tampa Port Authority’s Paul Anderson. It also has more elected county than city officials.

ABC Action News reached out to all the board members. At air time, only two said they intend to vote against it – City Council member Harry Cohen and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.

“Many of the people just want to hear that they could get from A to B shorter,” said Lena Young Green, a Tampa Heights resident. “These are people that make up a mass percentage of the MPO. These are who they represent. And then you have us who say we don’t – you get from A to B at our sacrifice.”

FDOT says the project will impact 19,000 people but benefit 5 million drivers.

The Lopezes don’t drive but could lose their home.

“But anyway, you deal with whatever comes your way and you do the best you can with it,” Joanne Lopez said.

They could lose the home they’ve shared for 56 years, a home they want to stay in.

“We’ve seen this area in Seminole Heights go up, down, sideways, you name it,” Joanne Lopez said. “We’ve seen it, but it’s ours and we always had good people.”