Downtown Tampa comes alive


Put your ear to the ground and you'll hear a freshened heartbeat in this city's once-flatlining downtown. There's new life in Tampa's core. More than you might realize.

The coming revitalization of Tampa's moribund downtown is not news to those careful to track the small signs of change. But to most folks in the Tampa Bay area - from those who never venture to Tampa's downtown, to those who commute there but mechanically exit without a second glance - the rebound in downtown Tampa may prove to be this region's biggest economic surprise of the next five years.

This is far from just a Tampa story.

After all, how great can the Tampa Bay area become when downtown Tampa itself sits dormant? Injecting energy, buzz and people 24/7 in Tampa's downtown is one of the last missing links in this region's journey toward becoming a first-tier metro area.

Jolting the downtown area back to life has taken a bit longer than expected. Just ask Christine Burdick, who moved here 2 1/2 years ago to become president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership and help steer the downtown's rejuvenation.

"I am impatient. It's later than I thought but I knew it was going to happen,".

"Tampa is about to live up to its own expectations. I think the whole region deserves to have a downtown it is proud of."

Tampa's spotty downtown still feels like a scene out of CSI. Sometimes you have to gather all the scattered economic evidence before it becomes clear a rebound is under way. Consider these diverse signals:

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio continues to make downtown revitalization her priority.

The powerful transformation of downtown St. Petersburg from hobbled to hoppin' reminded Tampa that remarkable urban comebacks are indeed possible and worth the effort.

Tampa's population is growing at a faster rate than the overall Tampa Bay metro area.

The St. Pete Times Forum in downtown Tampa sold 287,776 concert tickets through the first three quarters of 2004, making it the sixth-ranked indoor concert venue in the entire country and the ninth-ranked in the world. People - lots of them - are traveling to downtown Tampa.

A downtown cultural district along the Hillsborough riverfront that includes an expanding number of museums and entertainment sites is taking shape.

Growing regional traffic congestion is encouraging people to reconsider the benefits of living near where they work.

In the past year and a half, plans were unveiled for more than 3,500 housing units in downtown Tampa. That translates to more than 5,000 people living downtown when all the units are complete.

How to build and keep downtown housing momentum was the topic Tuesday morning at a breakfast held, appropriately, in downtown Tampa by the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

Ben Wacksman, president of Capital Realty Investors and moderator of the breakfast panel, said the influx of new residents downtown was equivalent in size to such giant suburban developments as Westchase or FishHawk Ranch.

The trick, the panel agreed, is creating a mix of affordable housing instead of a downtown crammed only with fancy condos and townhomes.

A downtown Tampa housing market that appeals to young and more adventurous first-time buyers, as well as modestly paid teachers, firefighters and police officers makes for a far more interesting urban scene.

So far, things look promising. Panelist Marybeth Storts, a Bank of America senior vice president, pointed to Tampa's Mobley Park near I-275 as a successful housing development of 238 units made possible with a combination of public and private financing.

Forty percent of Mobley Park's units are structured as "affordable" housing, which means a three-bedroom unit goes to eligible residents for a modest $655 a month. The remaining 60 percent of the units are market priced, with an identical three- bedroom unit renting for $975 a month.

Multiple housing projects, including Channelside 212 Lofts, Art Center Lofts and Victory Lofts, have offered downtown units starting at under $170,000. That might not sound cheap. But look around at housing prices near any downtown in this area and that price will start to look more modest in a hurry.

For the high-enders, of course, there are downtown condos galore with $1-million-plus price tags.

"Every dynamic downtown has diverse housing," says Capital Realty's Wacksman. At this early stage in the Tampa downtown rebound, that's a mantra well worth repeating.

Being surrounded by water - an amenity that's hard to come by in most downtowns - gives Tampa's Downtown a distinct advantage over the average urban residential area. That, and a lightning-quick commute, are the main reasons people are clamoring for downtown housing. Developers are responding in kind.

Recently, several new residential developments have been announced for Tampa's downtown.

Residents of Downtown Tampa have everything at their fingertips - from first-rate medical care to upscale eateries. Downtown restaurant-goers can enjoy everything from quick take-out meals to trendy fine dining. For those who enjoy a quiet evening at home, Publix recently opened one of its newest designs, a 26,000 square-foot "specialty grocery store."

From the fast-paced high energy clubs and restaurants found at Channelside, a new entertainment complex, to the local flavor of a Franklin Street Mall diner, downtown Tampa offers a true blend of dining experiences that make this community unique. (Click here for a current listing of Downtown restaurants.)

Tampa's Downtown has seven churches serving residents and office workers, and six child care centers.

For medical care, downtown's Tampa General Hospital is the region's only Level 1 Trauma Center, and one of just four in the state. The hospital is unsurpassed in a wide variety of different medical services.

Channel Medical Clinic is an urgent care center uniquely suited to serve travelers from cruise ships and the Tampa Convention Center. It is open seven days a week, does not require appointments, and provides items travelers need in a hurry - such as seasick patches and immunization shots.

Together, Tampa General Hospital, the Channel Medical Clinic and four pharmacies fully serve the health needs of downtown Tampa residents.

Explore, Experience and Enjoy InTown Tampa

The downtown area is also fortunate to be surrounded by some of Tampa's best neighborhoods. Known as the InTown area, these (together with downtown) make up a community with more than 88,000 residents. Click here to learn more about the InTown area communities.


Tampa's skyline set to gain towers

The City Council approves plans for one of two residential projects planned for downtown.


Downtown Tampa could get a double-shot of high-rise, luxury living, with one proposal unveiled Thursday and another that gained unanimous approval from the City Council.

Swiss investors want to build a 51-story, 472-unit urban residential tower. Keith Bricklemyer, an attorney for the developer, told the City Council on Thursday night during a zoning hearing that the project promises to "dramatically change the skyline of Tampa."

Earlier in the day, officials announced that a yet-to-be-named residential high-rise will be built in early 2005, also making it among the tallest structures on the west coast of Florida.

The lawyer for that developer, Ron Weaver, said all the initial paperwork has been completed for the 50-story building, putting an end to the controversy over a part of the site's ownership.

The proposed name for the tower is Four Seasons Residences. Plans call for residential dwellings to range from a simple 715-square-foot apartment with one bedroom and one bathroom, to a sprawling two-story, 4,041-square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom penthouse. Developers plan to outfit the tower with retail stores, a coffee shop, restaurant, health club, dry cleaning and day care for residents, said Peter Gottschalk, the project designer, who works for the Architectural Practice.

"This is very exciting," said council Chairwoman Linda Saul-Sena. "This is the first residential proposal for downtown in decades."

Bricklemyer presented the council with a letter from the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which said while the partnership members don't endorse specific projects, "they endorse these kinds of projects," he said.

Tampa Downtown Invest Ltd. has owned the property for the proposed Four Seasons Residences since 1998, Bricklemyer said. The property had been zoned for a 50-story, 700,000-square-foot office building. Years ago, the lot was a car dealership, city officials said.

Council members unanimously approved the rezoning Thursday to allow building the 700,000-square-foot Four Seasons.

Bricklemyer said the next step is to find a joint venture partner and "move forward on an expeditious basis."

The maximum height of the proposed Four Seasons is 630 feet.

The second project is along the Hillsborough River and includes a site that was the subject of some controversy last month, when broker Alexander Miran advertised plans to build a high-rise called the Presidential Tower. Questions arose about the background of Miran, his financial backing and whether he had title to the property.

New owners now have acquired the land and plan a similar project. Weaver said his client, Whiting & Ashley LLC, bought the property last week.

"This is a project that is very real," he said.

A managing partner of Whiting & Ashley LLC, Dr. Howard Howell, is an orthodontist with offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, Weaver said.

The architect is Alcides Santiesteban, whose firm has an office on S Howard Avenue and has designed high-rises in such cities as Bonita Springs, Naples and Clearwater.

The plan for the riverfront condominium calls for 213 units with views of South Tampa, the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa.

"This will be world-class," Weaver said.

Nine of the condominium units will be classified as luxury and take up the 44th to 50th floors. They will range from 5,600 to 7,700 square feet each, and cost from $1.5-million to $2-million.

The remaining units will feature 2,300 square feet of space. And an outdoor pool is planned on the 10th floor.

There are also plans for a restaurant that will seat 300 to 400 people and lush landscaping along 356 feet of riverwalk that runs 25 feet wide.

Construction will begin in early 2005 and take about two years to complete, Weaver said.

The site of the project includes a slice of land along the river that was the subject of some dispute over ownership after Miran announced plans to build condominiums there. The property was owned by the family of the late Michael Scionti, former chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee.

Whiting & Ashley LLC purchased the plot for more than $2-million, Weaver said.

Howell, the managing partner of Whiting & Ashley LLC, said they have owned land adjacent to the plot for years, and decided to buy the rest.

"It complemented what we were doing well," he said.

Our Goal... "By 2010, our Downtown will have a safe, pedestrian oriented neighborhood of 2,000 residential units serving a broad mix of incomes and providing homes to all individuals and families."

Recent trends in and around Tampa’s Central Business District indicate the City’s downtown core is poised for residential development. Harbour Island, Hyde Park and Davis Islands are established neighborhoods and nearly built out. The Channel District, Tampa Heights and Ybor City are emerging as viable and stable neighborhoods. In between, lies the Central Business District, which is just beginning to see a demand and interest for residential development.

This strategic focus area envisions the Central Business District as the focal point of a larger "central city" neighborhood comprised of the downtown and the surrounding residential communities. It seeks to promote residential development in the North Franklin area of downtown, while supporting linkages to the nearby established and emerging residential areas.

Several strategies will be pursued to promote residential development. The city will complete a new plan for downtown Tampa. The plan will provide a key mechanism for engaging and stimulating private sector interest, which is essential in successfully developing a downtown residential community. Strategies that create an environment that encourages and stimulates private investment in downtown Tampa, such as infrastructure improvements, development incentives and redevelopment activities will also be pursued, particularly along North Franklin Street and within the North Franklin Street District.

Safety and security is seen as an important element of a successful downtown residential community, and a downtown public safety plan will provide the proper security guidance. Building upon such assets as the Cultural Arts District, Franklin Street and the waterfront, the City will strive to create an environment where people will want to live. The construction of the Tampa Museum of Art and the Riverwalk will add to these amenities. Attractive streetscape, parks and open spaces, public art and pedestrian lighting will also be pursued in an effort to enhance the downtown environment.

Connections, linkages and transportation issues also play a critical role in promoting downtown as a residential community, but because the Central Business District is also the city’s principal financial, government, and economic center; transportation and linkage strategies must be examined from a multi-functional perspective. Updating the downtown plan will provide an opportunity to examine street alignment, traffic flow, parking and pedestrian movement from a variety of perspectives. Specific attention will be made to improving the design, function and appearance of the key gateways into downtown – Kennedy Boulevard, Ashley Street and Nebraska Boulevard.

With their banner in place announcing ``Mr. Empanada Coming Soon,'' David Alvarez and Elliott Acosta are busy building a restaurant to open Dec. 1 at 608 N. Franklin St.

``We're ready to go,'' Alvarez said Monday, taking a break outside in the autumn sun. ``All we can do is hope this downtown location will be good for us.''

What causes his hesitation is that the restaurant will be next to one of downtown's biggest eyesores: the deserted Maas Bros. department store.

The condemned building can't be demolished too soon for the Mr. Empanada team. ``It smells musty and is dangerous,'' Acosta said.

Although the Mr. Empanada eatery is a sign of downtown growth, the Maas Bros. site and dozens of other boarded- up buildings are its past.

Reconciling the two was among the topics at the Downtown Vision Plan Community Forum on Oct. 14, when about 250 people gathered at Tampa Preparatory School to discuss the assets and liabilities of downtown.

``It's ugly coming into downtown Tampa,'' Thom Stork, president of The Florida Aquarium, told forum participants.

All isn't bleak, however. The number of office workers is on the upswing. According to the Downtown Tampa Partnership, the figure was 51,460 in 2000, but expected to be 58,120 by 2005.

If all of the residential development plans work out, the number could be as high as 110,115 by 2025, including people living and working downtown.

Downtown Needs Life

is a long time off to see vibrancy in downtown Tampa. A trio of lunch-breakers on Monday said they hope for a big change sooner.

``People make a beeline to head straight home after work,'' said Alec Hall, a federal public defender sharing Italian food with two friends, Erik Curry of Syniverse Technology and Herman Floyd with the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Curry said that when he moved to Tampa from New York City five years ago he was shocked how dead the downtown streets were. ``There's still no residential. And it's like the Indy 500 getting out of here at night,'' he said.

``If we just had some place to socialize for awhile after work,'' Curry said. ``But nobody is compelled to stay.''

The forum participants concurred, and offered hope in a wish list for downtown: restore historic structures for mixed use; extend the streetcar into downtown; and link the areas with a continuous riverwalk route along the Hillsborough River.

Stork, as others, emphasized a sustained vision is needed from mayor to mayor if downtown is to reach its potential.

Input On Vision Plan Sought

There also has to be public involvement, forum leaders said.

``We're on the brink of major redevelopment,'' said Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick. ``It's just too important to not get community thoughts.''

As part of the vision plan, Taylor Yewell worked on a downtown market analysis. Describing the Tampa market as ``hot,'' he said residential development could reach 5,000 units in the next five years.

``The weak office market is showing signs of recovery,'' Yewell said, mentioning projects such as The Arlington and the Hillsborough River Tower, residential/office complexes in various stages of development.

Bob Glaser, president and chief executive officer, said once residential property is up and running ``everything else is going to happen.''

But the consensus from the residential group was that downtown needs low- to moderate-priced housing.

``Homes create a place,'' said Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who led the proposed Civitas effort to revitalize areas near downtown. ``We really need a mixture of types, not big condos.''

Stephanie Ferrell, a historical renovation architect, said the north end, with a number of old buildings, is a plus because developers will have something real to work with. ``New neighborhoods shouldn't be contrived,'' she said.

A marketing strategy needs to be in place, the group agreed. The notion of downtown being unsafe also must be addressed.

Blannie Whelan, 52, plans to sell her Cracker-style home in South Tampa and become a resident at the Arts Center Lofts now under construction.

``I love downtowns,'' she said. She said she would feel better, though, if the parks were more people-friendly. She would like to see a place to store kayaks.

To offer opinions for the Downtown Vision Plan, go to or call (813) 221-3686.