Urban Stimuli: Armature Works, Tampa Heights

The sentiment that echoed over and over at the soft opening of Armature Works last week was: “this so isn’t Tampa. It’s too cool!”

But it is. And it is.

Dead-center between Tampa Heights’s residential streets, popular with young DIYers, and Downtown Tampa’s bustling event schedule, the Armature Works building has been there all along.

Within it, the Heights Public Market space is voluminous, high-ceilinged, beautifully bricked, painted, and polished. It’s also connected to assets like a central courtyard, 700-person event space, and a generous front patio that faces the Hillsborough River, Riverwalk, with a postcard-worthy vista of the skyline.

While the concept is nothing new -- adaptive reuse of a historic structure -- everything from the developer to architect to selection of hospitality experts managing individual stalls within the building are locally vetted and invested.

Local magnets

Rather than gambling on concepts from outside our market, Soho Capital filled the public market full of names you already know, like Cru Cellars, Swami Juice, Ichicoro, O Cocina, and Ava. New “brands” within the building come from likewise familiar local operators. 

Union is a new venture for Commune + Co. coffee and tea, famous for their cold-brew growlers. Graze 1910 comes from owners Raymond Menendez and Lauren Menendez. The former was a partner and the general manager at popular SoHo spot Daily Eats. During the soft opening, I tried a fried chicken biscuit sandwich from BnB (butcher and barbeque), which was tasty.

Overall, there is a robust mix of food and drink options, from brothy ramen to pizza and ice cream, and even a small sundry shop with fresh produce, cold drinks, to-go meals, etc.

Development over time

Originally, the Heights Public Market building was “the barn” for the Tampa Electric Street and Railway Company (i.e. streetcar), used for maintenance and storage due to its handy location at the far west end of Seventh Avenue. 

When the extensive streetcar network was disbanded and disassembled in the early 1960s, a local industrial outfit (Armature Works) purchased the building, using it until recently to create machinery used in the phosphate business.

For a brief period five or so years ago, it was used as event space in its raw, unmodernized form, for popular annual gatherings like Nude Nite.

In the last years, SoHo Capital began acquiring parcels around it in order to create the now 43-acre development known as The Heights, of which the Public Market is the focal point and arguably the most important success factor* for the future of the entire neighborhood.

*That is, minus some sort of improved public transit.

Community impact

SoHo’s Chas Bruck and Adam Harden were clearly prescient when they decided to take a long view with the area they now control. Years ago, I doubt many would have been optimistic about investing in Tampa Heights.

The neighborhood has long been home to vacant lots, homeless encampments, and law offices, mixed in with dilapidated structures and empty brick streets. Slowly, though, other uses with strong followings moved in, like Oceanic Oriental Supermarket and Cafe Hey. 

After my 15-month sabbatical from Tampa, I was pleased to see new establishments in the area—Foundation Coffee being one of my regular spots. Most recently, Inkwood Books moved from Hyde Park and The Hall on Franklin was molded from the shell of a former gay nightclub.

All this, plus the creation of Water Works Park, Richard Gonzmart’s Ulele restaurant, and the extension of the Tampa Riverwalk, has evolved the nature of the area and its feeling of vibrancy. 

Across the mental barrier of I-275, Downtown Tampa carries with it the thick feeling of a city (on certain blocks, like walking in the Loop of Chicago). Tampa Heights is more bohemian, the laid-back counterpart with a natural elevation and local flavor.

Doing so quietly and without much self-promotion, the area has transformed into a hub where you can find parking, eat, drink, set up your laptop and sip a cortado, and even buy elegant houseplants (at Fancy Free Nursery) without crossing uncomfortably wide streets or facing much blank frontage.

The Heights, with the Public Market at its heart, only adds to the desirability of the neighborhood.

All inclusive

Blocks north, west, and east are mostly historic bungalows and new infill, but a key part of building an audience for the commercial activity at Armature Works is coincident residential development.

Enter: The Pearl, a seven-story apartment complex anchored at the intersection of West Palm and North Ola Avenues.

With 314 units of varied size and price, it promises to add the sort of density that hasn’t existed in the area for many years, since before waves of flight to the suburbs were made possible by automobiles, cheap gasoline, and greenfield developments of ticky-tacky single-family homes.

Today, consumers of every generation prefer the experience of urban areas, with the critical mass of culture, events, and options reachable by short walks or bikes.

Next steps

The Heights Public Market at Armature Works is evocative of Ponce City Market in Atlanta and the Ferry Building in San Francisco, but it is uniquely Tampa.

While this first phase, demarcated by a new activity center and residential building, is part of an ultimate plan to completely develop the broad triangular area, it speaks to a broader trend that will only continue to transform Tampa’s landscape.

Not only will other major residential buildings be completed in the next year, but Water Street  looms as a sleeping giant. Whereas The Heights has employed the expertise of many local leaders, with whom we are mostly familiar and comfortable, Water Street’s SPP has made a point to import new ideas and interpretations via leaders from places like Washington, DC.

Soon, residents and visitors will dart between new and existing focal points along improved routes pushed for by a vocal set of urban dwellers, both native and transplant.

It will be an exciting time of transformation, and Armature Works at The Heights is just a glimpse of what is to come.

Urban Stimuli is a monthly column in 83 Degrees dedicated to lifestyle and cultural innovations that are transforming Tampa’s urban core. These developments are making our city more exciting, vivacious and praiseworthy for visitors, newcomers and natives alike.

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Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.