Downtown Tampa builds a strong foundation for growth, study finds

Tampa is a city with an emerging downtown poised to capitalize on a strong economy, a growing housing market, and property values low enough to attract new investments, according to a new study by the International Downtown Association (IDA).

The association is an advocate for “vibrant and livable urban centers.”

Its annual report -- The Value of U.S. Downtown and Center Cities -- compiles data on downtowns in 33 cities. Each city is defined as an established, growing, and emerging urban center based on residents and jobs; population density; assessed property values; and residential growth rates from 2000 to 2017.

With an emerging downtown, Tampa compares favorably to other cities of similar size including Toledo, OH and Oklahoma City, OK.

The study singles out the Tampa Riverwalk, Water Street Tampa, and the Heights as “significant new assets that can help reverse the jobs decline that began in 2002 and strengthen retail growth.”

On Thursday (Aug. 27), the Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted a “Digital Downtown Debriefing” with David Dixon who presented the study’s results. Dixon is an urban planner and vice president of Stantec, a design company that helped with master planning for Strategic Property Partners’ $3 billion Water Street Tampa development.

Kathleen Rawson, chief executive officer of Downtown Santa Monica, CA, and chair-elect for IDA; and, Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners in Charlotte, NC also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on developing downtowns.

According to the study, Tampa’s downtown population grew by 36 percent from 2000 to 2017 compared to a slower 17 percent average for other emerging downtowns.

About 16,000 residents live in downtown Tampa, which covers about 3-square miles, or about 2.5 percent of all of the city’s land.

Of those, about 50 percent are white; 30 percent black; and 20 percent Hispanic or Latino. Residents, ages 18-34, represent about 50 percent of the downtown population, and among that age group, about 32 percent are age 18-24.

Dixon said millennials, ages 25 to 35, are the fastest-growing segment of downtown’s population.

Tampa has done a good job creating an inclusive and diverse downtown, Dixon said. Some cities run afoul of elected officials who are reluctant to invest in downtowns that they say are “islands of white privilege,” Dixon said. “Tampa is doing a much better job of staying tied to the larger community.”

One area where downtown needs to see growth is in retail.

The study found that downtown represents about 3 percent of all retail sales, and 7 percent of retail stores citywide. About 247 businesses occupy about 300,000 square feet, with bars and restaurants about 60 percent of the retail market.

Downtown overall has a higher vacancy rate than the city overall. But there has been a positive trend, since the 2008 recession, as downtown’s retail vacancy declined from 12 percent in 2015 to the current 4.4 percent.

However, Dixon said retail traditionally follows housing growth, and downtown is a fast-growing housing market. At least 2,000 new housing units are anticipated in the next three years.

“That is a tremendous opportunity,” Dixon said. It can bring in a new generation of entrepreneurs, artists, and creative people, he added.

The study also looked at overall trends in cities.

The next decades will bring dramatic changes in job creation, education, and mobility that will impact how downtowns grow, Dixon said.

For instance, the growing trend is toward a knowledge economy but that will bring challenges for the job market and education.

In Tampa’s downtown, knowledge jobs in the professional, scientific, and technical services grew about 36 percent between 2010 and 2017. Downtown added about 1,000 new jobs in management.

“There will be a significant shortage of skilled and educated workers that our economy needs,” he said. “More than 90% net new jobs will require college, probably four years of college.”

Creative jobs in arts, entertainment, and recreation grew from fewer than 500 in 2002 to about 1,500 in 2017.

Mobility also will bring benefits and challenges to downtowns.

By 2040 about 75 percent of vehicles will be driverless. But before then, Dixon said there will be self-parking vehicles. Those vehicles will do a better more compact job of parking and require less space. Dixon said cities should stop investing in expensive physical structures, such as parking garages.

“It’s better to stop building now if you can,” Dixon said. “I know that is a challenge.”

The future of office space also could change, in part due to the impact of COVID-19. Since mid-March employees that once commuted downtown are working remotely from home.

“How do we get our folks back?” said Dixon.

Workers’ productivity from home is up slightly, he said, but virtual meetings may not be as effective in nurturing “innovative” productivity.

Rawson and Smith said their cities also are dealing with empty office buildings. But long-range they felt there would be a rebound.

“The problem is we’re social animals. … We like kibitzing around the water cooler,” said Rawson. “I miss that.”

It is an evolving situation, said Smith, adding there may be less interest in investing in new office buildings that can take 36 months from planning to completion. But, he said, “I think what we will find in five or 10 years [is that] this working from home is going to be a part of the mix.”

COVID-19 has presented opportunities, said Rawson.

Santa Monica, like other cities, kept restaurants open by expanding permitted use of the outdoor right-of-way. These “parklets” are working well, she said.

Some restaurants by increasing outdoor seating are doing more business now than pre-COVID. “That seems to be paying off,” said Rawson.

Other highlights from the study on Tampa’s downtown were:
  • About 70,000 jobs, or 21 percent of the city’s jobs, are downtown
  • The assessed land value of downtown property is more than $3.7 billion, or 21 percent of total citywide land value
  • Median income in the Channel District is $87,000
  • Renters occupy more than 80 percent of housing units
  • More than half of all outdoor events permitted by the city are held in and around downtown
For more information, you can download the complete IDA study.
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.