Palmetto Beach makes history
TAMPA - For more than a century, La Mega cigar factory has towered over the Palmetto Beach neighborhood, a few miles east of downtown. The factory once employed hundreds of people who lived in its shadow. Now it's a shadow of its former self — abandoned, its windows shrouded in plywood. By the front steps, a weathered, warped sign offers a promise of condos. "I'd like them to do something with that building," said Jacinto Simon, who moved to Tampa from Cuba 40 years ago. He lives next to the ghostly factory. La Mega stands at the center of the new Palmetto Beach Historic District, which was added last month to the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places.The new district covers the northern segment of Palmetto Beach, from Durham Street south to Thrace Street, about half the wedge-shaped neighborhood fronting McKay Bay. Palmetto Beach has its own city park and elementary school. But it has some imposing neighbors — the Port of Tampa to the west and the city solid waste incinerator to the east. The Selmon Expressway cuts it off from Ybor City to the north. Downtown's skyscrapers are visible above the neighborhood's treetops. The new historic district was created, in part, to compensate the neighbors for the loss of several houses to the new Interstate 4/Selmon Expressway connector. A ramp leading from the port to the elevated toll road is under construction at the district's northern edge. Residents hope the historic designation will offer the community a layer of protection from incursions by the Department of Transportation and others. "This designation we see as a very good sign that we're moving up in the ranks of Cigar City," said Jennifer Willman, president of the neighborhood's community association. The federal listing acknowledges Palmetto Beach's history as one of Tampa's three centers for cigar-making a century ago. West Tampa and Ybor City are the other two. The registry focuses on what happened in a neighborhood, not how it looks and feels. It can, however, open the door to federal tax credits for commercial renovations. State and local grants and low-interest loans targeting historic preservation can help the district's homeowners improve their property. That extra layer of protection requires the kind of city ordinances that have helped restore Tampa's other historic districts, such as Hyde Park, Seminole Heights and Ybor City, said Carl Shiver, a historic preservation specialist at the state's Division of Historical Resources. Willman said it's not clear whether the community will seek the stricter rules. Tighter rules can raise home values, but controlling the look of restored homes could push out the neighborhood's poorer residents, Willman said. "The biggest concern is creating additional burden for low-income people who can't afford to make the renovations needed to meet local historic designation standards," Willman said. Economist Randall Mason, an urban planner and historic preservation expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said that even without local rules, the federal designation is likely to give Palmetto Beach a new appeal — and with that, an economic boost. Homes and commercial buildings in a historic district tend to rise in value faster than properties outside the district, Mason said. Though that may raise the specter of gentrification, it doesn't have to, he said. "It does bring a sort of honorific to the place," Mason said. "It doesn't have to necessarily have to lead to all new faces."
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