TAMPA, Fla. — Even with the constant hum of traffic, Clive Hon feels right at home just west of I-275 in Tampa Heights.
“Not gonna lie, that was a concern, but with my job in sales, I had to be close to the airport,” said Hon, who moved to Tampa from Philadelphia a few years ago. “Having a lot of, you know, interstate to us is not foreign to us, so we kind of accepted the vicinity of our house to the interstate.”
From his North Elmore Avenue yard, Hon can easily see the I-275 southbound ramp to I-4 eastbound, but soon, his view might get even clearer.
“It was a shock to me,” he said.
He and other Tampa Heights neighbors said they were surprised to discover just weeks ago that a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) plan to widen the downtown interchange includes relocating the current interstate wall on the west side of the interchange and bringing it closer to Tampa Heights homes.
Rick Fernandez, who lives a few houses down from Hon, said he learned of the plan for the boundary wall during an informal meeting with two FDOT workers in November.
“One of them just innocently happened to mention that there was going to be wall movement, and after the wall movement, there would be room for landscaping, and that was the moment where I practically choked on my coffee,” said Fernandez.
“Totally blindsided us, and you know, we just don’t know what to expect,” added Hon.
Hon’s next-door neighbor, Brenda Christian, expects more noise.
“This is going to really affect both our quiet enjoyment and our property values,” she said.
Nicole Perry, who lives further south, expects a dirtier home. She said the interchange — even at the distance it’s at now — covers her home in dust.
“We constantly have black dirt and dust on our home — on our walls outside — the front porch, back porch,” she said as she quickly used up a Magic Eraser scrubbing just a few inches of her home’s siding.
FDOT said, over the span of years, it’s held dozens of meetings with neighbors, transportation leaders and others about the project. Additionally, during a Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) meeting on Jan. 11, the department shared a slide that shows a design schematic which specifies the department’s plan to relocate the wall.
It said the slide was originally presented to regional transportation leaders during a public meeting in Aug. 2019.
The department said materials and documents related to the project’s scope have also been online since Feb. 2020.
Neighbors, however, disagree that the information was readily available and made clear to them.
“What should have happened is that [FDOT] should have come to us with a series of neighborhood meetings…and given us very detailed scaled models and maps of exactly what it is they intended to do so that we would know what is expected,” said Fernandez, who not only lives in Tampa Heights but also serves on the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Citizens Advisory Committee.
“All of that amounts to a very large degree of frustration, frankly — on the parts of some — anger at the way DOT has handled this. We should not have to be having this conversation now.”
After hearing neighbors’ concerns during the Jan. 11 TPO meeting, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said after multiple meetings on the topic even she was unaware that FDOT intended to expand and move the wall closer to Tampa Heights homes.
“From what we saw a year ago to what we now understand has changed,” Overman said.
She and Commissioner Pat Kemp asked FDOT District 7 Secretary David Gwynn to consider hosting a future meeting with neighbors and local leaders to give them a tour of the site, more thoroughly share details of the current plan, and potentially address neighbors’ concerns about the wall.
Gwynn agreed to such a meeting. However, he expressed doubts that neighbors are willing to “work with” FDOT on achieving the goal of improving the interchange, and Gwynn maintained that neighbors should not have been blindsided by the department’s intent to relocate the wall.
“I do believe that the information was there,” he said. “Maybe we need to look at how it was presented.”
Neighbors like Adam Fritz believe a compromise can be reached and the interchange can be improved without expanding the wall toward homes like his.
“Progress is going to happen, but the progress needs to be not at the detriment of the people who live here,” he said.
Construction on the interchange expansion is expected to begin in 2023. In addition to widening the single-lane ramp from I-275 SB to I-4 EB that’s adjacent to the Tampa Heights homes, FDOT also intends to widen the existing single-lane ramp from I-4 WB to I-275 NB to two lanes and the existing two-lane ramp from I-4 WB to I-275 SB to three lanes.