Channel District's evolution from industrial district to live, work, play urban lifestyle

For much of the 20th Century, burly longshoremen made up the crowd at Sparkman Wharf, where they hefted cargo from incoming ships and loaded it in a string of warehouses. The advent of container ships displaced the longshoremen, and by the late 1970s, the docks and warehouses sat empty. Blight characterized the Channel District.

Sparkman Wharf has emerged as a shopping, dining and nightlife hot spot in the Channel District.Now, especially on weekends, Sparkman Wharf is a bustling party place with shops and restaurants, among them JoToro, Battery, Splitsville Southern & Social, and food stands in converted corrugated shipping containers. They offer hot dogs, ice cream, Cuban food and seafood. People can buy clothes, chocolate and pet novelties at the shops and gather around the bar at the LightHaus Beer Garden in the courtyard. The Florida Aquarium and cruise ship terminals are across the street.

It’s part of a work-live-play enclave that has sprung from the residential building boom in downtown Tampa. The mid-and high-rises house comfortable retirees and professionals who can afford rents above $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. A number of them moved to sunny Tampa from cities like New York and Chicago when the pandemic opened the nation up to working remotely.

“I would say probably once a week we get someone coming in saying they just moved down from New York, or they just moved from the West Coast or somewhere else, where they can work remotely,’’ says Danielle Evans, who with her husband Graham Evans owns the Don Me Now boutique and Bubbly Barchique champagne bar in The Fitzgerald Channelside building on Kennedy Boulevard, at the north end of the district.

Lauren Carr, manager of Joyful Notion boutique and florist in the Sparkman Wharf complex, says so many people living in the high-rises work remotely for Fortune 500 companies. 

“Those guys have crazy disposable income,” she says.

Concerts at Amalie Arena bring customers to Sparkman Wharf, Carr says, and on weekends, people come in from around the Tampa Bay area to eat.

“We have music every weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,’’ she says. “You can sit outside, people can drink outside as long as you’re on the premises.’’

Starting in the early 2000s, apartment buildings have sprung up transforming the area into a dense urban landscape. Among the choices are the sprawling Grand Central at Kennedy, which opened at the north end of the district in 2007; The Towers, two 30-story skyscrapers on the south end of the district that opened in 2007; SkyHouse Channelside, which came in 2015; and The Fitzgerald Channelside, which opened in 2017.

Realtor Kimberlee Curtis has lived in The Towers since moving to Tampa from Cincinnati in 2017.

“I asked for recommendations for safe neighborhoods, a place where a single gal would enjoy living and all of that. The Towers was recommended to me and I’ve been here ever since,’’ she says.

“I love it. I’m completely obsessed with the Channel District,” Curtis adds.

Indeed, Curtis is a member of the Tampa Downtown Partnership and chairwoman of the Channel District Community Redevelopment Area Community Advisory Committee. She credits the rise of the Channel District to the Florida Legislature’s action decades ago allowing the establishment of community redevelopment areas where local governments could use a portion of the taxes generated by rising property values to reinvest in the area. The Channel District Community Redevelopment Area, established in 2003 and sunsetting in 2033, has funded a lot of the infrastructure in the district, she says.

“It was part of the urban core, it was blighted, and it really needed a lot of help to transition into what it could be and what it should be, an urban environment, and it was really the establishment of the CRA money that gets invested back in the neighborhood,’’ Curtis says.

A turning point came in the late 1980s when the Tampa Port Authority bought land on Ybor Channel and spent some $80 million to build cruise facilities, a new headquarters and a parking garage. The $84-million Florida Aquarium opened in 1995 to lower-than-expected crowds, and a few years later the City of Tampa took over its mortgage.

The problem then was the dearth of people in the area. That’s all changed now.
Maddie Johnson, who walks dogs for clients, moved to an apartment in the district six months ago from Boulder, Colorado.

“I love it,’’ she says as she stopped in the Grand Central Courtyard recently with two small dogs on leashes. “I love how dog-friendly it is because I have a dog and I walk dogs all the time. I feel like it’s a really safe area. I love the restaurants.’’The renovation of the Courtyard at Grand Central on Kennedy enhanced one of the many spots to hang out in the Channel District.

She does go exploring elsewhere in the city.

 “I love the Davis Islands Dog Beach,’’ Johnson says. 

A jogger like many young Channel District residents, she likes running along Bayshore Boulevard.

Curtis, who works from her apartment when she’s not on-site meeting a client, says she spends most of her time within the district, a lot of it because of CRA business.

“Pretty much all my life exists here,’’ she says with a laugh.

For entertainment and dining, she goes to Sparkman Wharf quite a bit, she says.

“I love the new courtyard that they just redid down in Grand Central. It’s great. I go to District Tavern quite a bit, and of course, Water Street now, which being our neighbor, that’s kind of a go-to spot. And I go downtown some, too, but I generally stay pretty close to home because there’s so many good options now, so why not?’’

The District has a Publix and a Greenwise, CVS pharmacy and other amenities to keep people close to home, such as bars, coffee shops, a smoothie shop and popular restaurants beyond Sparkman Wharf, among them Bamboozle on 12th Street, which serves Asian fare, and the award-winning Italian restaurant, Cena, in Grand Central’s courtyard. Stageworks Theatre is in the Grand Central complex.

Duckweed Urban Grocery opened in the Channel District in 2016.Duckweed Urban Grocery on 12th Street opened in the Channel District in 2016, and manager Brittney Greene says the rise in buildings and population since then has been astounding.

“It’s getting kind of crowded over here, but it’s good, it’s good,” she says. “Tampa’s blowing up.’’

She says the increase in customers has kept the business going steadily, despite the regular customers the store lost when rents skyrocketed and forced them to move.

“We were worried about the new businesses coming in, Publix, CVS over there’’ – she points west – “but it really hasn’t affected us.’’

Danielle Evans of Don Me Now and Bubbly Barchique was wary when a Realtor more than a decade ago suggested she move her business from Hyde Park Village to the Channel District.

“At that time, I was like, ‘I’m not going downtown, what’s downtown? Nobody knows anything going on downtown.’ ”

But five years later, the rent was going up in Hyde Park Village, and the couple liked the idea of adding a champagne bar to the boutique. 

“We really loved the concept of a combination, a hybrid – grab a glass of wine and walk around,” Evans says.

At that time, the Water Street project started by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik was underway.

“All of that kind of started to come to fruition, and reading about that and looking down here at the new buildings – oh my gosh, there’s nowhere you can go where there’s new construction – and this was a brand new building and it was beautiful,’’ she says. 

The store opened in the Channel District in early 2018.

“We had these ideas of just starting from scratch and creating this whole concept, and the stars aligned and everything just sort of worked out,” Evans says.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.