Downtown Tampa transformation continues with prep for West River

On the west bank of the Hillsborough River near downtown Tampa, community leaders are striving to build a better future from the rubble of a sometimes troubled past.

Recently, crews started tearing down North Boulevard Homes, the city’s oldest public housing complex, to make way for West River, a 150-acre redevelopment project that will continue the transformation of the downtown area into an urban hub where people can live, work, shop and dine in close proximity.

The Tampa Housing Authority, the City of Tampa and community stakeholders have eyed redevelopment of the West Tampa prime riverfront property since the InVision Tampa master planning process started in 2011.

To see the plan through, the Tampa Housing Authority spent 2015 and 2016 helping 811 families relocate to other affordable housing in the city, including apartments in the ENCORE! Tampa development near Ybor City. As a mixed-use, mixed-income development built on a former public housing site, ENCORE! Tampa is largely the model for the West River plan.

Tampa Housing Authority COO Leroy Moore says all the residents moved out of North Boulevard Homes will have the option of returning to one of the approximately 840 affordable housing apartments planned in West River.

Moore said those who return will see the “isolated pocket of poverty” that North Boulevard Homes became over the decades replaced by a vibrant “community of choice,” with a mix of income levels and backgrounds as well as shopping, office space and a modern urban design.

“We want a diversity of cultures, income and building types in close proximity to cultural opportunities and jobs,” he says. “Our biggest job market is right across the river.”

Currently, evolving plans include 2,200 residential units, mostly apartments with some townhomes in the mix, 90,000 square feet of retail and 70,000 square feet of office. In many cases, apartments will go above street level shops, restaurants and office space, with parking tucked away out of sight in the rear of the building.

“That way, when you are walking down the street you are not walking past a sea of parking but you are walking past a neighborhood,” Moore says.

Valuing 3Ps - public-private partnerships

To build that neighborhood feeling, roads that once hit a dead end at the fence surrounding North Boulevard Homes will be completed and connected. A multi-use recreation trail will run along the west side of the river from Columbus Drive to the University of Tampa. A land swap with the Hillsborough County Public Schools will relocate school athletic fields away from a spot on the river to open that area for redevelopment.

West River is a public-private partnership between the Tampa Housing Authority and the Miami-based Related Development Group. The government involvement opens up the opportunity of grants and other public funding sources while private sector ownership of some of the development will put that prime riverfront land on the property tax rolls.

Moore says the concentration of residents and the retail and office uses will boost ridership for the public transit system and help to one day support light rail if that is what the future holds.

Like ENCORE! Tampa, West River is intended to replace an aging, out-of-date public housing complex with a mixed-use development that offers housing opportunities for a variety of income levels and potential employment in close proximity to downtown.

More broadly, the start of demolition on the concrete block, two-story barracks style buildings in North Boulevard Homes also continued the transformation of Tampa’s urban core.

The Heights redevelopment project, with the Armature Works building as its centerpiece, is planned north of downtown on the river in Tampa Heights. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik and his partners also recently unveiled the name Water Street Tampa for their multi-billion dollar downtown waterfront redevelopment project.

Randy Goers, the Urban Planning Coordinator for the City of Tampa, said even in the midst of a national trend of people moving back to the urban core, Tampa is seeing more activity than most cities.

“There are two to three large redevelopment projects happening in our downtown area which is probably unique when you look around the country,” he says. “In cities around the country, there might be one or two projects that are happening.” 
The availability of land, the fact that people continue to move to Florida and Tampa’s transformation into a more vibrant, active downtown are some factors driving the redevelopment,” Goers said.

“You have employees who work downtown, people retiring who want an urban environment and active area instead of suburbs and millennials starting careers who want something to do,” he says. “We have a variety of different people, with a variety of different interests at a variety of different ages and the nice thing is downtown is able to serve all those different interests and ages.”

Now, the redevelopment has spread west of the Hillsborough River.

Creating a better place

Since his first campaign, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has promoted the idea that the river should be the center of the city’s urban experience, not its western boundary. West River and the ongoing $35.5 million redevelopment of the nearby Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park show that idea becoming a reality.
Amenities at the revitalized, redeveloped Riverfront Park will include trails, a boathouse, kayak rentals, a splash pad, picnic areas, basketball and tennis courts and a wraparound deck boasting a view of downtown.

“That park is going to be the major community park for not only that neighborhood but North Hyde Park,” Goers said. “It will also serve downtown.”

The improvements at the 23-acre park are expected to be complete in March, he says.
As for West River, Moore says the first two new buildings could be under construction in approximately one year, with full build-out probably a decade away.

In late June, former residents, City of Tampa and Tampa Housing Authority officials and other community members gathered at North Boulevard Homes for a ceremony marking the start of demolition. For former residents, the occasion was bittersweet. Tampa Housing Authority Commissioner Dr. Hazel Harvey, a former resident  now writing a book about North Boulevard Homes, recalled neighborhood fish fries and televisions set up on the front porch so neighbors without one could watch.
Latoya Escourse, who lived in the complex a decade and raised four children there, recalled the sense of community but also the fear of living amid crime and hearing the sound of gunshots.

Escourse says she plans to move her family back.

“It’s home,” she says.

Buckhorn says he knows the relocation to make way for the demolition and redevelopment disrupted many lives but “in the end this will be a better place.”
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