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Tampa’s transformation: Multibillion-dollar downtown development boom starts on the waterfront

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn remembers how underutilized, under-appreciated, and unattractive the city’s waterfront was when he first arrived in 1987.

The blocks of offices and surface parking lots located downtown, near the confluence of the Hillsborough River and the bay, provided few reasons to come downtown beyond work.

“The city had turned its back on the water,” Buckthorn says. “At the time, the waterfront was filled with broken-down wharfs and was more industrial than pedestrian. There was no Riverwalk, and Harbour Island, a neighborhood now home to 10,000 people, was a phosphate dumping pit filled with weeds and rats.”

Today, Tampa’s waterfront is a magnet for investment: The city’s downtown has become the locus of a wave of construction projects that will bring an estimated $13 billion on investment to the Tampa region through 2022, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.

Its centerpiece, the new Water Street District, is a $3 billion, 16-block mega-development, which recently broke ground on a new JW Marriott hotel and the $164.7 million University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute, a new facility that backers hope with become the centerpiece of an emerging medical tech cluster.

A project of Strategic Property Partners (which is a joint venture of Cascade Investment, owned by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, and Jeffrey N. Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise), the Water Street District is the largest and most high-profile of a series of developments reshaping the city.

“This is bigger than just a bunch of buildings going up during a boom time,” says architect Robert M. MacLeod, professor at the University of South Florida School of Architecture & Community Design. “It’s a chance for Tampa to reinvent itself—and even rebrand itself—as a downtown that’s very walkable and pedestrian friendly.”

A thousand little things reshaping the city

The changes sweeping Tampa’s waterfront and urban core may seem relatively sudden. But today’s transformative developments were the result of decades of slow, methodical effort, what Buckhorn calls “a moment 20 years in the making.”

The 53-acre Water Street site, a former industrial zone situated in the Garrison Channel and Hillsborough Bay, had traditionally been plagued by many of the same planning and connectivity issues that held back other urban districts in the U.S.

Cut off by a large highway, the neighborhood was a jumble of surface parking, nondescript offices, and disconnected big-ticket projects, including a convention center, an aquarium and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s arena. It exemplified the ways Tampa had traditionally lagged behind when it come to urban development, and lacked a true sense of place downtown. Salon once called the city a “hot urban mess.”

When billionaire Jeffrey Vinik realized he could acquire 53 acres of land near his team’s arena and have a hand not only in developing a collection of properties, but also methodically creating a new neighborhood, he seized the opportunity. According to James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners, the construction team has spent the last two year redesigning and rebuilding the street grid, instituting road diets to create walkable and bikeable streets and sidewalks and landscaping waterfront paths along with nearly 13 acres of new parks.

It’s all part of an ambitious plan to make Water Street the first WELL-Certified district in the world, meaning it will meet a new, evolving standard that prioritizes design for health and well-being, and elements like daylighting, outdoor access, and air quality. A new development-wide cooling system will save energy and allow rooftops to trade AC units for green roofs and gardens.

According to Nozar, the grid redesign and green focus shows just how Vinik and others are building Water Street with a long-term vision. Eventually, when the development is complete in 2027, Water Street will contain one million square feet of cultural and retail space, 3,500 residential units, hotels, and innovation hubs.

But that’s far from the only project recently opened or under construction near downtown. According to a recent New York Times article, New York-based Bromley Company will develop a 1.8-million-square-foot mixed-use project called Midtown Tampa. BTI Partners, out of Fort Lauderdale, is building the $400 million Westshore Marina District, transforming a 52-acre formerly industrial parcel on the waterfront.

Coming on the heels of new creative reuse projects such as Tampa Armature Works, a former trolley car garage-turned-upscale food hall in the Tampa Heights neighborhood, and Ulele, a riverfront restaurant, as well as public space investments like the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, these development underscore how Tampa’s urban core is creating the amenities to accommodate thousands of new residents.

Nozar has compared all the activity in the once-overlooked urban core as filing in a hole in a doughnut. But it can also be seen as a zipper: The new downtown core, as well as the development heading north along the Hillsborough River, will ideally pull together the neighborhoods on the east and west of the waterway.

“Leadership needed to get behind the idea that you could transform this unproductive part of the city into a vibrant neighborhood,” says Diane Eigner, publisher and editor of 83 Degrees, a local news site. “It’s more about 1,000 little things than one big thing. Vinick and Water Street is important, but it’s the little things that all add up into a huge investment into our downtown.”

By the time the first round of buildings at Water Street open in early 2021, coinciding with Tampa welcoming Super Bowl 55, Nozar, Vinik, and others believe Water Street will have completely redefined downtown.

Riverwalk and redevelopment

Each of these new projects capitalizes on the renewed focus on the city’s waterfront. Like many reviving downtowns focused on walkable urbanism and economic development, Tampa directed investment and energy into its riverfront, hoping to create a focal point for the city. Buckhorn, the latest in a line of mayors who have worked for decades to stitch together downtown Tampa, says the riverwalk had a “generational impact” on Tampa.

“If we were going to attract business capital, and the young people fleeing Tampa for other cities, we had to create a downtown that was exciting and focused on the waterfront,” Buckhorn says. “I spent the last seven years trying to build that, and the critical piece was the 2.4-mile Riverwalk. It was six mayors and 40 years in the making.”

The resurgent waterfront and downtown have come into their own just as Tampa was, in Buckhorn’s words, “changing its economic DNA.” Once more focused on the service economy and real estate, the Tampa region has rapidly developed a new urban economy, says Eigner, and becoming increasingly attractive to young professionals and tech workers and creating a pent-up demand for housing downtown. According to the Tampa Downtown Partnership, downtown’s population had doubled to 8,100 people between 2008 and 2016.

Tampa has been a leading city for job growth in Florida over the last few years, and in the last few years, companies such as Amgen, Johnson and Johnson, and Bristol Meyers Squibb have relocated down here. Buckthorn sees the resurgent downtown attracting more such employers, and views the under-construction medical center as the locus of a growing medical tech hub that can become a “mecca for intellectual capital.”

“This medical tech cluster will drive the economy for decades to come,” he says. “That’s a lot bigger than getting a baseball team in Tampa.”

Growing pains and transit challenges

While the growth that has fueled Tampa’s current downtown development has helped reshape the landscape, it’s also in danger of exacerbating existing issues. The city needs to focus more on affordable housing, especially in the face of rising real estate prices, says Eigner.

Transportation presents another big challenge for a downtown expected to add thousands of new residents and become an even bigger job center. The city’s public bus system isn’t nearly robust enough or well-funded enough to accommodate the expected population growth.

“We do not have the mobility options we need if we’re going to continue to grow at this pace,” says Buckhorn. “Florida is a very car-centric state, and we need to look at a more robust bus system, as well as rail and bus rapid transit.”

Tampa’s current wave of redevelopment offers potential for both redevelopment and reinvention. MacLeod sees promise and peril in how these forthcoming towers reshape not just the city’s plain skyline, but its public realm. Can these large developments be more than just signature architecture, and help shape the street? Can they bolster the emerging sense that downtown Tampa can have its own sense of place?

“I tell my current students that they’re lucky,” says MacLeod. “They will watch a city being designed and built before their eyes.’”

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