With mill demolition, downtown Tampa's industrial past makes way for the future

As Tampa’s urban core transformed, attracting tech companies, big name developers, national retailers and restaurants and an influx of new residents, the Ardent Mills plant on South Nebraska Avenue remained, a reminder of downtown’s proud industrial past and a roadblock to its live, work, play future.

Now, the mill, which dates back to 1938, is coming down to make way for the next phase of the multi-billion dollar Water Street Tampa mixed-use development and to connect the street grid and now-bustling neighborhoods around it. Local business and government officials ceremoniously marked the start of demolition in a July 22 event that included Tampa Mayor Jane Castor using an excavator to tear down a small accessory building on the property.

Castor said the redevelopment of the site was another step in an urban evolution that has included Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment’s vision to transform more than 50 acres of flat parking lots into Water Street, the growth of the Channel District and, in the future, the transformation of the area between downtown and Ybor City through projects like the planned Gas Worx redevelopment.

Tampa Downtown Partnership President and CEO Lynda Remund put the mill demolition in the larger context of the changing face of downtown’s Channel District.

“I’ll give you a snapshot of how this neighborhood has changed,” Remund said. “Standing here a few decades ago, we were surrounded by an asphalt factory, banana docks and dozens of warehouses. Today, we’re down the street from billions of dollars in investment, two renowned cultural institutions, a tech startup hub, a world-class arena that’s home to back-to-back Stanley Cup champions…and one of the premier medical schools for research in America. This site has long been seen as a block for our pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular connectivity downtown. This step forward creates vital connectivity between Channel District and the adjacent neighborhoods and will make walking your dog, riding your bike and getting to work easier, faster and safer. The future of this site will connect these neighborhoods back together and complete downtown’s 50-year evolution from warehouses and industrial yards to a 24/7 live, work, play destination.”

Connecting downtown

Over the next several months, crews will dismantle the mill piece-by-piece, preserving some of the tall silos for repurposing. The demolition will make way for the extension of the roadways Water Street and Whiting Street through the property. In connection with a related Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority project to remove the railroad tracks running to the mill, the road extensions, which will follow a complete streets design model to safely accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic, will create a street grid that connects downtown with the Channel District and the Water Street development.

With phase one of the Water Street development complete, the downtown Ardent Mills property will also be a central site for the northward expansion of the $3.5 billion city within a city. Water Street developer Strategic Property Partners has not yet submitted or released official development plans for Ardent Mills and adjacent property. Overall, the first phase of Water Street included 1.1 million square feet of office space, several hundred hotel rooms, 1,300 residential units and 300,000 square feet of entertainment space.

The development master plan envisions a total of 3,500 residential units, two million square feet of office space and one million square feet of retail and entertainment space at build-out. It is a massive growth spurt, as Hillsborough County Commissioner and former Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen noted at the event marking the start of mill demolition. 

“Having served on both the City Council when Mayor (Bob) Buckhorn was in office and now as a Hillsborough County commissioner, to watch the transformation of this neighborhood has been nothing short of miraculous,” Cohen said. “One-point-six million people are going to be living in Hillsborough County by the year 2026 and the fastest growing zip code is right here, 33602. So this is a really really important piece because this is going to allow all of what has happened here to connect. To connect to the rest of the city, to connect to the street grid, to actually make this back to part of a neighborhood. And that is what we are really striving to do throughout this community.”

The role of Port Tampa Bay

In some ways, the demolition of the downtown Ardent Mills mill is a win-win-win situation. The property opens up for redevelopment and the connection of the street grid. Ardent Mills has relocated to a modern, $100 million facility at Port Tampa Bay’s Port Redwing property near Gibsonton. Port Tampa Bay has a new, long-term tenant in place at a waterfront property it has developed over the course of 12 years from empty to leased-out, says Port Tampa Bay Vice President of Engineering Patrick Blair. 

“Redwing, 12 years ago, there was nothing there and now it’s pretty much leased out,” Blair said in an interview. “We have 150 acres across (US) 41 from Redwing that we bought and are going to develop.”

With its massive property holdings, Port Tampa Bay is no stranger to playing a role in downtown’s redevelopment. The Port owns the Sparkman Wharf property and leases the land to Strategic Property Partners. Earlier this year, Port Tampa Bay sold a piece of land in the Channelside area to the City of Tampa for $3.8 million for future use as a park.

“It happened to be a parcel that was next to our parking garage,” Blair said. “It wasn’t waterfront. It was something we were able to help the city out with and be good partners.”
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.