How Developers Discovered Tampa’s ‘Best-Kept Secret’
The University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute is one of many projects under development on and around the waterfront in Tampa. Credit Todd Anderson for The New York Times
TAMPA, Fla. — When Paul Guzzo first set eyes on Tampa in 1999, he was not impressed.
“I thought, this isn’t a city — it’s a ghost town,” said Mr. Guzzo, a native of Trenton, N.J., who, like so many other Northerners, had moved south for the balmy weather. “It was like a small town looking to become a big city.”
Against his better judgment, he stayed, and has since been able to observe the gradual metamorphosis of the city’s center: A slew of developments, some completed, others planned or under construction, have imbued Tampa with a sense of dynamism that most people here agree it sorely lacked. Even some of Bill Gates’s billions are in on the action.
“You couldn’t have imagined that it would become what it is,” said Mr. Guzzo, 42, who writes about the area’s history, among other topics, for The Tampa Bay Times. “There’s stuff to do downtown. There are people there 24 hours a day. That’s the difference.”
A forecast by Dodge Data & Analytics predicts that $13 billion will be spent on development in the Tampa Bay area — which includes Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg — through 2022. That figure, for both new construction and renovations, includes apartments, condos and commercial and institutional buildings.
The most ambitious of the projects is Water Street Tampa, a $3 billion, multiuse development covering 16 blocks on and around the city’s downtown waterfront. The project is being underwritten by Strategic Property Partners, a joint venture of Cascade Investment, owned by Mr. Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, and Jeffrey N. Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.
The 42-acre development, scheduled for completion in 2027, will comprise 17 buildings, including two new hotels and the renovation of a third, as well as restaurants and rooftop bars, one million square feet of cultural and retail space, 3,500 residential units and an “innovation hub.” It will also include two million square feet of office space in what will be the first new office towers here in almost 25 years, according to the developer.
Already under construction in the Water Street development is the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute, a 325,000-square-foot facility that is set to open next year.
“We’re filling the hole in the middle of the doughnut,” said James Nozar, Strategic Property Partners’ chief executive, referring to the Water Street project’s position in a sparsely developed area in the heart of the city, which includes Amalie Arena, home of the Lightning. One of the aims of the project, he said, is to “reconnect downtown to the waterfront.”
To support the outside investment, officials from Tampa and Hillsborough County have agreed to split the roughly $100 million cost of a revamped street grid in and around the Water Street project. Planned improvements include new parks, sidewalks, storm drains, underground utility and communications pathways, as well as lines connected to a cooling plant that will provide chilled water to the air conditioning systems of the buildings.
The streets are being designed with driverless cars in mind and parking structures that could be converted to other uses. Renderings of the project show wide, verdant sidewalks, with bustling businesses, cafes, shade trees and children running through fountains. The developer estimated that 23,000 people will fill the Water Street area every day, as residents, visitors or workers.
“I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time,” said Bob Buckhorn, who has been Tampa’s mayor since 2011. “We’ve changed our economic DNA. I knew that if we were going to invest in intellectual capital, we had to create a built environment and an urban core that was attractive to young people, which meant completely transforming downtown Tampa on the waterfront.”
There was much that needed changing. Tampa, incorporated in 1849, was long known for little more than phosphate mining, cigar factories, mobsters and corrupt politicians. It was sometimes derisively referred to as Sin City or Little Chicago.
There was an extensive streetcar system beginning in the 1890s, and the city erected its first skyscrapers in the 1920s, said Gary Mormino, a former professor of history at the University of South Florida. But by the late 1950s, he said, the city center had gone into a “death spiral.”
Mr. Mormino recalled walking around the Channelside area just east of downtown in the early 1980s and seeing a “deserted” landscape that was populated by jack rabbits and home to abandoned shipping wharves and a dilapidated cast-iron drawbridge.
“What’s going on now is on a very different level,” Mr. Mormino said. “Now, it’s on steroids. It’s pretty dramatic.”
City and county officials hope to attract companies in the high-tech, financial and creative sectors to fill the new space, not only downtown but elsewhere in the area. In the last three years, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Amgen, Ashley Furniture and Bertram Yachts have opened offices or other facilities here.
“This whole area has gone through a transformation,” said Noah Breakstone, a managing partner at BTI Partners, a developer based in Fort Lauderdale. BTI is planning the $400 million Westshore Marina District, a 52-acre waterfront project in Tampa on long-vacant industrial land.
“Tampa presented a strong opportunity for us,” Mr. Breakstone said. “It has a lot of dynamics similar to what Miami had in terms of its ability to grow, but Miami is now out of land. Tampa still has available land on the waterfront — a really limited commodity in most places.”
Plans for the Westshore Marina District call for hundreds of townhouses and condominiums, as well as restaurants and stores. Its crown jewel, the developer said, will be Marina Pointe, a complex with a 150-slip marina, the largest in Tampa, and three 16-story towers designed by the Miami architect Kobi Karp, each with 110 condominiums.
Three other South Florida developers, the Related Group, Lennar Corporation and the Bainbridge Companies, have purchased parcels from BTI in the Westshore site for their own residential developments. Related, a major Miami-based developer, has several other residential projects in the works in Tampa and St. Petersburg, including the rebuilding of Tampa’s oldest public housing site into a $350 million development with 1,636 mixed-income units and 177,000 square feet of commercial space.
To the east of the Westshore Marina District, the New York developer Bromley Companies is planning a mixed-use, 1.8 million-square-foot project called Midtown Tampa at a cost of more than $400 million. In its announcement last month, the developer said that it would include 750,000 square feet of office space, 400 apartments or condominiums, a 225-room hotel and 240,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space.
The Tampa Bay area, which has a combined population of about three million, ranked fourth in the nation in terms of growth in 2016, when some 58,000 people became residents, according to the Census Bureau. Officials here note that Zillow Research last month named Tampa the top market in the United States for first-time home buyers.
From 2012 to 2016, about 148,000 jobs were created in the area, said Craig J. Richard, the chief executive of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. Tampa, he added, has long labored under an inferiority complex.
“We just plod along as a happy little town, but we don’t know how good we really are,” he said. “We’ve got housing affordability, sports teams, museums, beaches, blue skies and palm trees. There are not a lot of places that can claim such a great quality of life.”
Mr. Richard added that the market had been untapped for many years in terms of major construction, especially downtown. “The last thing you want to be, in terms of economic development, is a best-kept secret,” he said, “but we’ve managed to do that for decades.”