The Tampa Tribune: “After decades of attempts, a new plan is taking shape.”
TAMPA — From the bridge that carries Columbus Drive across the Hillsborough River, downtown Tampa’s gleaming towers seem to rise from the water’s surface.
It’s a million-dollar view, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to develop a riverfront community worthy of it.
With the lp of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, Tampa’s political and business leaders have embarked on a yearlong effort to craft a future for the 140-acre tract stretching from Columbus Drive south to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
The institute-guided project is not the first effort by city leaders to find a new purpose for the land along Rome Avenue that includes Tampa Housing Authority’s 70-year-old orth Boulevard Homes public housing complex.
All those efforts fell flat. So what makes this time different?
“You’ve got a new, aggressive mayor. You’ve got a new council,” said Ed Turanchik, a lawyer, developer and former mayoral candidate. “The city and county are starved for tax base. So I think the stars are aligning to do something.”
Buckhorn’s landslide victory last year gave him the political capital to spend on a decade-long project such as Rome Avenue, Turanchik said. “He won the most seriously contested, robust race for mayor in generals,” Turanchik said. “I think people are desperate for success.”
Turanchik should know. He helped develop two plans that aimed to use the Rome Avenue land for a higher purpose: an Olympic village and the Civitas urban in-fill project.
Neither of those plans caught fire, but they may yet take shape as the city moves ahead with redeveloping the site.
“We are building on a significant foundation laid by the people who came before us,” Buckhorn said this month when Urban Land Institute members visited Tampa.
The cornerstone of that foundation is a yellowing, hand-drawn map of the Hillsborough River. A riverfront road, the Hillsborough River Parkway, hugs the river’s west bank between Sulphur Springs and Bayshore Boulevard.
Famed Florida planner George Simons drew the road in the early 1940s. He built on ideas a clutch of well-to-do Tampa residents commissioned in 1932 from the son of fabled urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted.
“There were several contacts with that firm in the early 20th century,” said county planner Terry Egans. “I don’t think any of them went anywhere.”
Simons spent 18 years designing Tampa’s streets and neighborhoods starting in 1940.
Simons’ Hillsborough River Parkway plan shows just how long that chunk of land has been an issue. North Boulevard Homes, built in 1940, was already in its spot alongside the river. To the north, land now occupied by a city public works lot, among other things, is labeled “trailer park.”
The Rome Avenue property remained an afterthought for nearly three generations until it became a potential place to house athletes during the 2012 Summer Olympics.
As city leaders in 2001 put together an Olympics bid, they turned to the North Boulevard Homes and neighboring land. The committee assembled to bid for the Games — a group that included Turanchik — spent $300,000 on designs by well-known Miami-based urban planner Andres Duany.
Duany envisioned high-rise residences with a promenade and park facing the river. City leaders saw the project as their chance to revive urban neighborhoods largely abandoned by decades of flight to the suburbs.
“It was a big deal,” Turanchik said.
Ultimately, Tampa’s Olympics bid foundered, leaving Turanchik and others to find another use for Duany’s designs and their dream of reinvigorating Tampa’s inner neighborhoods.
Born in 2003, Civitas aimed to rebuild some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods, replacing concentrations of crime and poverty with mixed-income communities on the doorstep of downtown.
The Olympic village proposal was scaled down and retooled to become an urban neighborhood tied to the river.
Civitas’ promoters drove home the notion of reorienting life in the city toward the river once lined with fish houses, among other noxious uses.
As the Civitas developers quietly assembled land in Tampa Heights, Central Park and what Turanchik refers to as “the west bank,” they ran into a political roadblock when then-Mayor Pam Iorio opted to promote only the Central Park component.
But even that plan fell apart when city and county officials couldn’t agree on how to split the tax revenue the new project would generate.
“The west bank didn’t happen because Central Park didn’t happen,” Turanchik said.
The Central Park segment of Civitas was eventually scaled down to become Encore, now under construction by the Tampa Housing Authority. But that project continues to struggle for funding as federal housing grants shrink and private lending remains tight.
Turanchik sees some daylight emerging in the development world, particularly where urban living is concerned. He also sees better cooperation between city and county leaders than existe in years past.
“Obviously, the right thing to do is to rebuild the city,” he said. “And the market wants to do that.”
Former Mayor Dick Greco, who tried and failed to redevelop the riverfront in Tampa Heights nearly 20 years ago, sees the Rome Avenue project as a natural extension of the transition that has turned the Channel District’s wharfs and Ybor City’s cigar factories into desirable real estate.
“It’s right to do the planning but nobody should expect that next week or next year things are going to change,” Greco said. “To rebuild a city takes a lot of time.”
Buckhorn says it’s time to build on Iorio’s legacy, which focused on expanding cultural offerings and infrastructure east of the river by reaching across to the west bank.
“Now the timing is right to connect the dots so the river becomes the center of our downtown, not the western edge,” Buckhorn said.