Channel District grows along waterfront in Tampa

In Tampa’s Channel District, construction cranes swing across the sky. Below, workers in hard hats mill about at the spot off Meridian Avenue and Madison Street where construction on the Channel Club building has reached the halfway point.

When it is completed in 2018, the 21-story Channel Club will have 323 apartments and an adjacent Publix, the first full-service grocery store in the Channel District.
A neighboring piece of land will be the future site of Madison Street Park, a much welcomed greenspace in this growing neighborhood where residents from Millennials to Baby Boomers have come for an urban, walking lifestyle in close proximity to downtown.

Across Madison Street, construction crews are renovating a section of the Grand Central at Kennedy building that will be the future home of Quality Distribution Inc., (QDI), a transportation and logistics company that is bringing its headquarters and 300 jobs from the Hillsborough County suburbs to the city’s urban core.

On the southeast corner of Meridian Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard, screened construction fencing wraps the lot where Tampa-based Liberty Group has started construction on the Channel District’s first hotel -- a 10-story, 215-room hotel that will include two Hilton brands: Hampton Inn and the extended-stay Home2 Suites.
That development will also have the neighborhood’s first Starbucks. The national chain will join local coffee shops and gathering places like Ginger Beard and Victory Coffee just as Publix will join local Duckweed Urban Grocery.

Ten years after residential development first began to change this warehouse district between downtown and Port Tampa Bay, the steady stream of new construction is continuing the transformation to a mixed-use, walkable neighborhood where start-up companies, arts venues, and an eclectic mix of largely locally owned and operated restaurants, pubs and shops are all part of the mix.

What's next for Channel District?

In a few years, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and the real estate firm Strategic Property Partners will ratchet-up the redevelopment of the Channel District, and Tampa’s urban core, on a massive scale with the multi-billion dollar Water Street Tampa project.
But developers and residents in the Channel District say a decade-long infusion of residents and businesses already has created a vibrant urban hub that is attracting jobs, entrepreneurs, artists and investment.

Ken Stoltenberg, the director of Tampa-based Mercury Advisors, and his business partner bought the land where they would build Grand Central at Kennedy in the early 2000s, after the approval of the express lanes for Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway sold them on the area’s redevelopment potential.

“It was basically a warehouse district,” Stoltenberg says. “Nobody lived there. You could count the amount of people who lived there on one hand. That’s one of the things that appealed to me about the district; it was a pretty blank canvas. There wasn’t a lot worth saving.”

Grand Central at Kennedy opened in 2007 and endured a few years of struggling condominium sales after the Great Recession. Now every unit is sold, QDI is bringing an employment hub to the development and the ground-floor retail boasts fine dining, pubs, a coffee shop and a brand new gym.
“The thing that was initially slower to take off than I expected was the retail,” Stoltenberg says. “Now you're seeing the commercial activity pick up not just in my project but throughout the district, the stuff you normally do on a Saturday morning.''

Stoltenberg says the growth of the area's residential base, more than 2,200 apartments and condominiums within a half mile over the last decade, the uptick in shopping, dining and entertainment options and the addition of a major academic and healthcare presence with the ongoing construction of the  University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and USF Heart Health Institute have all combined to fuel more redevelopment and interest. He expects that to continue with the new Publix in Channel Club, which is also a Mercury Advisors development.
“A lot of companies see the urban revitalization and know to get the employees they want, that revitalization has to exist,” Stoltenberg says. “So 10 years ago, we were kind of selling the dream down here. But now companies come down here and they’re like "OK, all right. We’ve got the hockey team guy [Jeff Vinik] investing gazillions of dollars over here; and we’ve got a supermarket going over there; and we’ve got a medical school. They can see it. It’s not just a pretty picture and an artist rendering. Now they can go see cranes. And in the next 2 to 3 years, it’s going to be dramatically easier to show them that revitalization than it is even now.”

Adding hotels to the mix

Liberty Group Executive Chairman Punit Shah is a local investor who saw the transformation of the Channel District and decided to become a part of it with the neighborhood’s first hotel.
“It’s becoming more of an eclectic neighborhood,” Shah says. “You’ve got obviously the residential base. You’ve got the growth of retail, particularly with the incoming Publix and a lot of the smaller mom-and-pop shops around there. You’ve got not only an apartment base but a condominium base, as well as office, retail and now a hotel. It's really becoming a really nice mixed-use community.”

Shah says one thing that drew him to the Channel District was simple supply and demand. Tampa’s urban core has continued to grow but the downtown area has seen no new hotels since the Liberty Group opened Aloft Tampa in 2014.
The dual brand hotel will meet existing and future demands in the Channel District, he says. Cruise ship passengers from the nearby port will stay at the Hampton Inn to enjoy the area’s restaurants, museums and other amenities. He expects the Home2 Suites will draw guests from the USF College of Medicine. He expects the Starbucks to become a gathering place for residents and hotel guests alike and that the project as a whole will help fuel a local resurgence.

“We think that project will energize that area of the Channel District,” Shah says. “We’ll have close to 100 new employees and a 24/7 operation. It will be a big economic engine for the community.”

Both Stoltenberg and Shah say that, for national businesses and investors, the Channel District’s appeal is similar to that of downtown Tampa as a whole - available property at reasonable prices compared to other large cities, a relatively low cost of living, a pro-redevelopment city administration, a low tax state and, a city with a growing array of cultural and entertainment offerings.

Residents make a neighborhood

Vance Arnett, the President of the Channel District Community Alliance, moved into Grand Central at Kennedy about six years ago and has watched as major residential developments SkyHouse, The Fitzgerald and Pierhouse have gone up and added nearly 1,000 more residential units.
Arnett says it is the residents themselves, a mix of Millennials, Boomers and families, and the artistic and entrepreneurial spirit of the area that are helping the Channel District carve out a unique niche as a bustling urban neighborhood.
“We have a very strong component of very creative people,” he says. “There are young entrepreneurs down here who are absolutely the essence of what the mayor (Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn) is talking about when he says let’s get things started. They are here on a mission. They could be anywhere else but they want to be here.”

That artistic spirit includes the Stageworks Theatre and the murals that local artists have painted on several buildings in the district. The entrepreneurial spirit includes tech-industry start-ups and the shared space that Ginger Beard and Pour House use in the retail area of Grand Central at Kennedy. During the morning and early afternoon, the space is a coffee shop before turning to a craft beer pub in mid-afternoon and evening. Two businesses operating in a single space and feeding off one another.

Boosting the quality of life for residents who want an urban walking community remains a priority, Arnett says. The new park on Madison Street will help and there have been pedestrian friendly improvements along Meridian. Transportation remains a challenge for residents who want to venture downtown without driving their own car. Residents would benefit from improved service from the streetcar and bus systems and the Downtowner free ride service, Arnett says.

Still, he says the residents, artists and local entrepreneurs who have come together in the Channel District have made it a thriving community.

“You’ve got this creative mindset blowing through here that the people who live here get excited about,” Arnett says.

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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.