TAMPA — Friday nights, the line of bar hoppers outside MacDinton’s Irish Pub stretches out the door and down South Howard Avenue.
That’s when the SoHo district’s landmark watering hole runs its two-hour all-you-can-drink special, kicking off another weekend of drinking, noise and traffic congestion in Tampa’s newest entertainment district.
Just don’t use the label around City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern.
“I don’t want to call it that,” Mulhern said. “I want it to be a Main Street.”
South Howard used to be just that – the commercial spine for the Courier City/Oscawana neighborhood, a community of largely single-family homes running from Kennedy Avenue to Bayshore Boulevard. There was a Mexican restaurant, a gay-and-lesbian bookstore, a laundromat.
Those places are all gone now, each replaced by a bar.
“It’s been a very difficult decade,” said Richard Campion, owner of the Dubliner Irish Pub, which opened in 2002 to serve a quiet, close-knit neighborhood.
“Most of our clientele lived in the area,” Campion said.
Since then, one city council after another has expanded the number of businesses serving alcohol along South Howard. Today, more than two dozen places there serve alcohol, drawing crowds from across the region. Councils also approved a series of condo, apartment and quadplex housing developments, expanding the neighborhood’s population and opening it to young renters.
“Over a period of years, council’s mentality was to really develop the entertainment district there, and it got developed all right,” said City Councilman Harry Cohen, whose South Tampa district includes South Howard.
Because those alcohol permits are tied the land, the decisions have permanently altered the neighborhood.
❖ ❖ ❖
Many of the permits were issued under the city’s old parking rules, which were more lenient that the current rules and applied to a time when the neighborhood make up was different.
Together, the changes have created an environment that – especially on weekends – makes bar owners’ cash registers ring even as it vexes long-time residents and nonbar business owners with noise, trash and crowds.
“I hate this place. Hate it,” said Archie Bourne, owner of Schakolade, a specialty candy story that has stood on South Howard for 13 years. Bourne bought the store in 2011 after retiring from the Army.
“I just fixed another light because the kids get drunk and stupid and want to break things,” said Bourne, 42.
The young people who frustrate Bourne come to SoHo from as far away as the University of South Florida. But an increasing number of them live right down the street.
In recent years, developers have added hundreds of multifamily housing units to the South Howard corridor. The Post Co., which owns Hyde Park apartments on South Fremont, is building another complex, Post SoHo Square, in the heart of the neighborhood. Nearby stands The Madison at SoHo at Azeele and Armenia streets.
The apartments have proven to be magnets for twenty-somethings.
❖ ❖ ❖
Since 2000, the neighborhood around Howard and Swann avenues has undergone a demographic shift. The portion of people in their 20s has doubled from 23 percent more than a decade ago to 46 percent today. Stretch things to include people in their early 30s, census estimates show, and you’ve captured the majority of the population within walking distance of the intersection.
“Most of the people I meet up with when I come here live in the neighborhood,” said 28-year-old SoHo resident Michael May as he unwound with friend during Happy Hour at World of Beer.
As SoHo’s population has grown younger, what had always been a strong restaurant scene has shifted more toward bars. Some of the most popular locations don’t open until 4 p.m.
“It’s always been restaurant row, but now it’s turned into bar row,” Mulhern said.
Vikie Pollyea, who has live in the South Howard area for 33 years, said it’s time for the neighborhood to face the fact the old community is gone.
“This is no longer a sleepy neighborhood,” Pollyea said. “We have to adapt to that.”
Many long-time residents have gotten tired of trying to fend off the change, Mulhern said.
“People have given up,” she said.
Bourne’s store sits between Yard of Ale, once a bookstore, and SoHo Saloon, whose owner sued the city after council members rejected his bid for an alcohol permit last year. MacDinton’s is across the street.
Like most businesses along South Howard – bars included – Bourne’s biggest complaint is about parking. There simply isn’t enough of it.
During the day, he shares space with Yard of Ale. On weekends, those and the three in front of his store become the property of the two valet services that work the district.
“Even though it says I’m open to 8 , I close at 6,” Bourne said. After 6, it’s impossible for drive-up customers to reach the store, he said.
❖ ❖ ❖
Parking problems have plagued SoHo for years, but they’ve grown worse as the bar-hopping crowds have expanded. It may not seem like it on a Friday night, but all of the existing business along South Howard actually meet the city’s parking requirements, said Steve Michelini, a land-use consultant who lives in the area and represents the owners of The Lodge and several other properties.
Bars like MacDinton’s hire valet parking companies to handle the overflow, he said.
The hitch is this: Those bars and restaurants met the city’s old parking requirements, which demanded one off-street parking spot for every three seats.
The new rules, put in place in 2001, require spaces equal to a quarter of the building’s capacity as determined by the fire marshal. Until a bar or restaurant makes a change to its alcohol permit, the old rules apply, Michelini said.
The new rules came into play last fall when John and Mary Ann Pendolfo Benton approached the city to get an alcohol permit for the location of their 24-year-old antique store, The Other Side. With retirement in their sites, they planned to rent their building to restaurant developer Jay Mize.
In doing so, they were following what many of their neighbors had done already.
“If you owned a lot on Howard and you got an alcohol permit, you were made. You didn’t have to worry about Social Security,” said Pollyea, president of the Bayshore Gardens Neighborhood Association.
Under the new rules, the proposed restaurant – with a capacity of 295 people – required 74 parking spaces. The Bentons had room on their site for three. They needed a major exemption for the restaurant to go forward.
City officials weren’t convinced.
“We have serious concerns about valeting 71 spaces,” land development coordinator Gloria Moreda told the council.
Moreda also reminded the council that the city has no way to enforce the valet contract to guarantee the proposed restaurant keeps to its word.
The city council turned the Bentons down.
❖ ❖ ❖
Since then, the Bentons have been trying to strike a deal with the city to let the restaurant go forward with a building capacity of 200 and 50 parking spaces. They have three leases for off-site parking lots to use for valet parking, their attorney, Mark Bentley, said.
A third round of negotiations is set for May 27.
Cohen said the Bentons’ case shows the current city council is taking a tougher line on SoHo’s nightlife than its predecessors.
“The biggest frustration we have is when we give an approval by way of a waiver, we lose total control of the process,” Cohen said. “One thing the council can do going forward is to be extremely strict in its granting of parking waivers.”
Bentley said SoHo won’t survive without waivers.
“Without valet, it wouldn’t function at night,” Bentley said. “If you converted that antique store to a tanning salon, you’d need 16 spaces. These guys are paralyzed.”
Mulhern suggested the city may be setting itself up for trouble by tightening the parking rules now.
“The problem is when you give (a waiver) to somebody, it’s hard to deny it to somebody else,” she said.
So what’s to be done about SoHo’s problems? Everyone seems to have their own solution.
Mulhern wants the city to stop issuing alcohol permits in SoHo until it can get a handle on the neighborhood’s problems.
She and several other council members also appear poised to reverse part of the city’s approval process for alcohol permits, bringing all bars and restaurants back to the city council for approval. It’s not clear when or if that might happen.
Those in the thick of the neighborhood have a simple answer: Build a public parking garage like the ones in Ybor City. There are sites on the edges of SoHo where the city might find the land, they said.
❖ ❖ ❖
Michelini said the city had money and plans for a public garage in SoHo 25 years ago, well before the corridor became what it is today. Those plans got passed over in favor of other projects, he said.
Today, land in the SoHo area is too expensive to make a parking garage financially feasible, Mulhern said.
Those garages in Ybor City require a subsidy from the city’s operating budget to break even each year, Cohen noted.
He’d like to see more effort be bring transit to the neighborhood as a way to get visitors to leave their cars at home. Along with that, the city ought to encourage more SoHo district elsewhere as way to encourage people to stay closer to home, he said.
Bentley said its time the city acknowledge that SoHo needs its own rules about parking and noise. Ybor City, Channelside and downtown already operate under their own rules, with different parking restrictions and noise limits than those enforced citywide.
Bentley has suggested the city create a special parking system for SoHo, tying valet contracts to the alcohol permits bars and restaurants rely on – a tactic similar to the late-night permit council members proposed last fall only to hit a buzz saw of opposition from permit holders.
“There’s a lack of leadership here,” Bentley said. “No one is thinking outside the box.”
Campion sees little chance of the city creating special rules for SoHo that would put it on par with Ybor City. Residents would fight it, he said.
“The city council has backed their way into a corner,” Campion said. “And there’s no way out for them.”