Urban Stimuli: JCC renovation jumpstarts investments in West Tampa

The repetitive scenes you glimpse from the backseat of your parents’ car, be they tree canopies, statues, or landmarks, are seared onto your memory forever. At least mine are. Fondly, I recall the warmth of the soft fabric back bench of my mom’s 1992 Saab.

Growing up in South Tampa, we passed by the stark white structure with fatigue green military trucks parked outside, either going, on Howard Avenue, or returning, on Armenia, anytime we took road trips or visited the dentist.

All I could assume was that the structure was related to MacDill Air Force Base -- the distinctions between the branches of our military lost in the details to my 8-year-old self. 

Today, that structure stands just the same, only now it plays host to numerous activities. A constant flow of vehicles come and go, bringing life to a parcel that has sat largely dormant for a decade. Today, the Fort Hesterly Armory is home to the Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center (JCC).

Like other recent large-scale redevelopments, the JCC attracts membership and clientele through a diversity of uses: a health and wellness center, premier event and meeting space, community programing, and partnerships with tenants like the City of Tampa’s Visual Arts Center and Tampa Jewish Family Services, a counseling and social assistance non-profit.

Creating a space with complementary uses and the potential for cross-pollination, plus open access to Jews and non-Jews, means the new JCC is better integrated with its neighbors, services a wider band of community needs, and can hedge its financial risks. 

It may not be as trendy as Armature Works in Tampa Heights or Station House in Downtown St. Pete, but it is already, at just over a year old, equally invaluable to those it serves.

An unlikely new home

I toured the JCC and met with Heidi Shimberg, Chief Operating Officer of the Tampa JCCs. As she explains it, the organization was not looking for a historic restoration project.

In the 1980s, following a popular migration to the Tampa Bay suburbs, the JCC was founded on the Cohn Campus in the greater Citrus Park area, adjacent to Northdale and Carrollwood in unincorporated Hillsborough County. 

Nearly 40 years later, Jewish life in Tampa is more dispersed. Only one third of all the Jews in the region are “known,” either through activity with Jewish organizations or synagogues. According to Shimberg, 46 percent of the known population lives in and around South Tampa. 

A simple google search of congregations shows two in North Tampa, two in South Tampa, one in Brandon, and several in Pinellas County.

In order to better serve a growing cohort in a county of nearly 1.5 million residents, JCC officials began the search process for a second, more southerly JCC location. Focusing only on parcels of appropriate size and accessibility rapidly brought them to the Armory site.

Built in the 1930s, the structure I mentioned earlier, in flat white with minimal flourish, was decommissioned in the early 2000s from its primary role as a storage facility for defense arms, and remained unairconditioned until its modern transformation.

At 100,000 square feet, adding the necessary HVAC systems, a modern entryway, along with new interior walls, dividers, and related infrastructure elevated the project’s total cost to $28 million.

Much of this was funded by charitable gifts, donations, and naming rights. The remaining investment shows returns through the variety of services the JCC provides. The public event space, which can be configured in multiple formats, including as a 350-seat film theater, provides one third of the operating revenue for the center. 

The JCC also has its own catering service (kosher and non), run by the former executive chef of the À La Carte Pavilion, which provides food and beverage service to meetings, weddings, and mitzvahs.

Community gathering place for fitness, wellness

The fitness and wellness center at the JCC includes one of Tampa’s only indoor running tracks (and on the second floor!), an indoor basketball and volleyball court, for use by youth and adult amateur leagues, as well as a full fitness center with personal training, massage studios, and over 50 exercise classes each week.

A sprawling outdoor watersports area complements the indoor physical recreation. Members can choose from a 25-yard lap pool, shallow warm-water pool, kids’ splash area, or the covered cabanas poolside. A café faces the pool for waterside hydration and snacking. 

In every part of the historic building there are opportunities for active adults and for youths to be enriched and connect with each other, non-digitally. 

The City of Tampa’s Visual Arts Studio covers 7,500 square feet and includes nine indoor kilns as well as a row of pottery wheels for ceramic creations. A glass fusion studio, jewelry studio, and mixed media area round out the program, administered by the city’s Parks & Recreation Department.

Several times a week, members gather for mah jongg and bridge, or for pickleball, basketball, or volleyball. The JCC also organizes field trips and events for young professionals, like printmaking, rides on the brew bus, and group cycling.

Teenagers enjoy “Epic Teen Night,” an evening of dancing, obstacle courses, dodgeball, and movies, as well as the opportunity to compete in the Maccabi Games, an Olympic-style sporting competition held every summer. This year, Team Central Florida will head to Orange County, CA to join 2,000 other Jewish youth from around the world.

As I moved from one area to the next and learned all that occurs on this campus, I sensed that no opportunity was overlooked to make it as comprehensive a community center and gathering place as possible.

Neighborhood relations

The areas north of Kennedy Boulevard, west of Willow Street, and south of I-275, all the way to the Westshore business district, have quietly competed for years with pricier neighborhoods in South Tampa, and have attracted above average investment in new residential units and density.

Straddling two distinct neighborhoods in greater West Tampa -- Armory Gardens and North Hyde Park -- the historic Armory building turned Jewish Community Center represents a sea change that was already underway, says Sandy Sanchez, President of the Armory Gardens Civic Association.

“The complexion of the neighborhood began changing six years ago. As a well kept secret spread that Armory Gardens, not named officially until 2013, was in an “A” grade school district, the transformation began. New homes began replacing old homes and young families moved into the neighborhood. We had very few children for many years.”

Despite some initial friction over parking, the center’s benefits outweigh its costs.

Kari Kurtz, President of the North Hyde Park Alliance: “The JCC has been a good neighbor by providing memberships to local families who would not otherwise afford it.  They have also been generous in offering meeting space to the local neighborhood civic associations and to us for our monthly meetings.”

Often, major redevelopment projects like the JCC either act as a catalyst for surrounding change, or indicate an already evolving neighborhood. Or both. 

In this case, the JCC is just another, more visible example of a growing desire among new and existing residents for urban renewal, and a vitality in the urban periphery that shows no signs of a plateau.

And though headline projects like the JCC are represent huge steps forward, the supporting infrastructure must match, in order for the whole ecosystem to function. 

As we highlighted back in January, new challenges pop up in the place of old ones, as we tick off our collective urban to-do list. Most pressingly, a more robust, well-funded transit system, and comfortable facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“For the neighbors (or folks who park in the neighborhoods) crossing Armenia or Howard to get to the JCC, it’s dangerous due to speeding cars and a lack of proper pedestrian crossings.” The one-way pair that connects South Tampa to I-275 and straddles the JCC is currently designed for expediency, not foot access.

Further attention on the surrounding streets and sidewalks, to address both parking and safety, could mean that soon, we’ll be going out to North Howard Avenue instead of South Howard Avenue, for dinner, drinks, and activities, some of which will likely be hosted at the JCC.

Urban Stimuli is a monthly column 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. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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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.