TAMPA, Fla. — Raised in the country, Sharlene Hartford has traveled some dirt roads, but she said the neighborhood streets she currently traverses in South Seminole Heights are worse.
“A warzone. This looks like a warzone,” she said Wednesday as she strolled down a sidewalk just east of the Hillsborough River near the intersection of West Crest Avenue and North River Boulevard. “Looks like someone dropped a bomb.”
The City of Tampa is in the midst of installing major infrastructure upgrades in the area.
As part of the Southeast Seminole Heights Flooding Relief Project, the city is replacing the current stormwater system to relieve flooding, improve fire protection, and increase safety. The work is impacting streets like North Florida Avenue, West Crest Avenue, and North Central Avenue.
Hartford, the President of the South Seminole Heights Civic Association, understands why the work is important.
“It’s incredibly important,” she said. “We want these storm sewers replaced. We want these water mains replaced.”
However, she and other neighbors have grown increasingly frustrated with how the project is being administered, how various milestones of the project are being communicated to neighbors, and how long the project is taking to complete.
“What was formerly West Crest Avenue has been at minimum an eight-month mud street. Nothing but mud,” she said.
During a Tampa City Council meeting on Sept. 1, she and the President of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association shared their concerns and shared a collection of photos of the conditions.
One showed litter purportedly left behind by work crews. One showed the rough conditions on North Central Avenue. Another photo showed how a park along the Hillsborough River has been transformed by the work.
“The saying is a picture’s worth a thousand words,” said Councilman Charlie Miranda. “What you brought us here is a library.”
Councilman Guido Maniscalco voiced concern about how the project is potentially impacting businesses on North Florida Avenue.
“This is a nightmare scenario,” he said.
While businesses remain open — as highlighted by Mayor Jane Castor in a recent video posted to social media — Maniscalco said he’s received complaints that work trucks are blocking access to the businesses.
“We’re getting complaints every few hours. It’s not even daily. It’s something new — morning and night — it’s something different,” Maniscalco said.
Brad Baird, the city’s Deputy Administrator of Infrastructure, assured the council that he and other members of the mayor’s administration are taking the concerns seriously.
“We certainly want to endeavor to resolve any issue as fast as we can,” he said.
Baird said the city and the project’s contractor, Nelson Construction, resolved roughly 80% of the reported issues since early August. Additionally, the city has hired a communication firm and will strive to provide better updates to neighbors and businesses.
“We’re going to try to do a better job of identifying the inspectors that are on site so the residents can get the proper information,” Baird explained.
In the three-year project, Baird said that crews are running ahead of schedule but are behind on repaving Crest Avenue because of supply chain problems and unanticipated construction issues.
Baird spoke highly of Nelson Construction’s work on past city projects.
“Every project that they’ve done has been excellent,” he said.
However, council members like Lynn Hurtak were unconvinced.
“We need an improvement with the soft touch, basically. We need improvement with communication. We need improvement with trash. We need to start seeing those because we just keep hearing that it’s going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen,” she said.
As requested by Hurtak and the rest of the council, city administrators will provide the council with another update Thursday night. Council members want more specifics about how the city and work crews are fixing the issues identified by neighbors and businesses.
Hartford hopes to hear the same.
“And that these residents receive a way overdue reprieve from this horrible environment that they’ve had to live in since November of last year,” she said.
Until then, she said her neighbors’ daily lives would remain drastically impacted.
According to Hartford, one of those neighbors, who has multiple sclerosis, can no longer use her mobility scooter to travel from her home on West Crest Avenue to businesses on North Florida Avenue because of the conditions in the area.
“That’s the saddest story, to me, of this project,” she said. “It’s also been very sad for our businesses.”
According to a statement from the City of Tampa, progress on West Crest Avenue will come soon:
We appreciate everyone's patience as we work through the challenges of the Florida Avenue closure. We understand that this is a major inconvenience for residents and businesses, but know this is a necessary project to reduce flooding and improve infrastructure across Seminole Heights.
Additionally, construction on Crest Avenue is nearing completion. The first layer of asphalt on the 300 block of W. Crest should be installed by September 23. The first layer of pavement on Crest, from Highland to Florida, should be installed by the end of October.
In a note that neighbors say was left on doors along West Crest Avenue Wednesday, Nelson Construction verified that the asphalt work would start soon and that sod will soon be placed where an outfall structure was placed in a park on the Hillsborough River.
"We sincerely apologize for the many delays on the project," the pamphlet reads. "We know that this has affected your quality of life on a daily basis and are doing everything we can to finish your street."
The current work on North Florida Avenue will take longer than expected to finish. According to a recent news release, the current road closure has been extended to Sept. 23.