The Heights Aims To Transform Tampa's Riverfront

Last summer, Darren Booth's 10-year-old son caught a 25-pound Amberjack from the banks of the Hillsborough River.  That might not be a big deal in some places.  But here, in a blighted area just north of downtown Tampa once littered with brownfields, boarded-up buildings and knee-high weeds, it seemed like a miracle.

For Booth, the 47-year-old development manager of The Heights waterfront project, it was a symbol of the progress he is making in helping transform a 48-acre industrial site on the southern most tip of Tampa Heights into something fresh, vibrant and green.

The goal is to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown neighborhood on the river with some 2,000 mixed-income residential lofts and condos and several hundred thousand square feet of shops, restaurants, hotels and offices.  A marina approved for 100 boat slips is planned.  

Booth also expects to see canoe rentals, fishing charters and public art strategically placed along a winding brick sidewalk with old-fashioned street lights.  It's Tampa's version of "build it and they will come."  The community will eventually connect with downtown via the planned two-mile Tampa Riverwalk.

Turning Dreams Into Reality

It's been a slow process to acquire the land, rezone the area and restore the environment.  

Discussions about the area's future have been underway since at least 1999 when the city agreed to designate it as a community redevelopment area.  Over the next few years, an investor group of local businessmen, including Don Wallace and Bill Bishop, began buying up properties with the dream of restoring the area and building something new.

Booth credits the investors for their vision. "We're doing everything right and cleaning up the sins of the last 100 years here," he says.  "This is about creating value.  When we're done it will be a world-class destination."

A West Point graduate with a master's degree in engineering from Murray University in KY., and an MBA from Harvard, Booth brings an interesting background to his job as a frontrunner for the investor group.  

He served with the 101st Airborne Division during Desert Storm, worked in finance on Wall Street and then took a job with an international engineering firm tackling major development projects around the world.  He lived in Australia, Thailand and Laos, where he helped build a hydroelectric dam.

When he and his wife decided it was time to settle down with their two young children, they chose Tampa. He liked the sunshine, the blue skies and the weather. It wasn't long before he had a job working on the Heights project.

Part entrepreneur, cheerleader and taskmaster, Booth is passionate about what he does.  "This is one of those once in a lifetime opportunities where I get to build something that I can be really proud of," he says.

One of his major tasks is to share the investor group's vision.  To do that, he's become a master of show and tell.  "It's always easier for people to get it when they can see it," he says.  

Reclaiming Urban Spaces  

There wasn't much to show at first.  In fact, crews had to come in and whack down the weeds, clean up broken glass and cart away the stacks of shipping cartons before you could even see the water.

Some people might find it daunting to build excitement about resurgence of a "tough" neighborhood, let alone bring groups of people by for a visit.  But Booth seems to have taken a tip or two from real estate agents specializing in "staging" their multimillion dollar homes.  

His office is now in a corner of a cavernous 1910-era brick building on the property that once housed the TECO Trolley Barn and later, Tampa Armature Works, a heavy industrial manufacturer of motors.  

Now there's Blue Moon on tap behind an enormous bar Booth has made out of old wood reclaimed from the building's second floor.  A wine cellar is set up in what was once a walk-in safe for the trolley line.  "Come on down for a visit to Darren's wine bar," he jokes.

In the fall, he offered the building for a charity fundraiser, hired a jazz band and set up an 18-hole put-put golf course just outside his office.   "It was something people didn't expect and they loved it," says Booth.

Come on a Friday afternoon around 4:30 p.m. and he'll have you climb aboard Capt. Cliff Conatser's river taxi, a 38-foot Carolina Skiff that stops at the Heights to pick up passengers for a happy hour cruise down the Hillsborough River.  

It's entertaining, but also the perfect opportunity for Booth to describe the project and show how accessible everything will be to downtown high-rise office buildings, art museums and the performing arts center.  

Back at the docks he points out the mint for Mojitos; tomatoes for salsa and hot peppers he's growing in backyard containers.  It's quirky and fun, and gets a chuckle.  But Booth is making a point here, too. He says he's experimenting and laying the groundwork for the future when young, hip professionals moving to the Heights will have urban gardens on their patios or rooftops.  

"It's all part of the sustainable lifestyle we're creating here," says Booth.  "We're envisioning terraced green rooftops for both homes and offices."

Planting Green Roots

The Beck Group is already one step ahead of the game. The Tampa-based commercial architecture, construction and development firm has designed the community's first commercial office building. And when it's completed in early 2010, it will feature a third-floor conference room opening out to rooftop gardens and a large covered deck for entertaining.  

"The roof on each side of the deck will be planted with a groundcover called Golden Moss," says Eric Kreher, principal architect for the Beck Group.  "It will greatly decrease the heat load of the building and provide a landscape appearance to the deck."

The garden is just one of many green features of the new building. There are solar panels, ultra-low flow plumbing fixtures, lighting systems with daylight and motion sensors and sun shades on southern windows. Kreher expects that the aluminum trellis and shade cloth material on the desk will help significantly reduce solar heat gain.   

Beck's new building is just one piece of the puzzle for the riverfront neighborhood. Retail is expected to be next, followed by residential.   Discussion is also underway with the University of South Florida about establishing a satellite center there for the training of physicians in robotic surgery.

Eventually, Booth's office in the old trolley barn and a second historic building on site, the 1907-Water Works pumping station, will be restored and incorporated into the design for the new community.  "We're taking it step by step," says Booth.

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.


Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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