Science, innovation drive change in Tampa’s Uptown District

As 83 Degrees was getting set to publish the following update about Tampa's Uptown District, the area became center stage for local demonstrations relating to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25.

One such protest became particularly violent on the night of May 30, when individuals took to the streets near the University of South Florida, looting and vandalizing several buildings in the Uptown District. 

While the officers involved in Floyd's death have now been arrested and charged with murder, unrest over the situation continues to spark protests in the Tampa Bay Area, other U.S. cities and around the globe.

A peaceful demonstration and prayer walk, planned at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 6, will be led by Crossover Church and Love Our City down Fowler Avenue starting at Church at 1235 E. Fowler Avenue.

In that context, below is our overview of the Uptown District.

The sweeping redevelopment of the North Tampa neighborhood known as the Uptown District continues with new innovative research spaces, construction of hotels and entertainment complexes, and opening of retail and community resource centers.

Bounded by Busch Boulevard to the south, Bearss Avenue to the north, and Interstates 75 and 275 on the east and west, the Uptown District is home to the University of South Florida (USF) Tampa campus, Busch Gardens and Adventure Island amusement parks, an eclectic mix of retail outlets and restaurants, and a multitude of medical treatment and research facilities, including H. Lee. Moffitt Cancer Center, AdventHealth, James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, and Johnnie B. Byrd, Sr. Alzheimer’s Institute. 

Targeted for economic redevelopment for decades, in recent years !p, a socioeconomic innovation organization formerly known as the Tampa Innovation Alliance, has been leading the charge for change in the USF area. This coalition of local government leaders, business developers, and community innovators is working on a common vision of economic empowerment for an area of Tampa that since the early 1990s has witnessed businesses follow residents to the suburbs, leaving behind abandoned buildings, emptying shopping centers, and abject poverty. 

But !p Executive Director Mark Sharpe, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, says redevelopment plans that have been years in the making are finally coalescing into action.

A strategic parcel of land recently opened up near the University Mall providing room for more than 1 million square feet of hotel, retail, and research space. Major projects are underway at Yuengling brewery and Moffitt Cancer Center. USF just announced the construction of a research complex on Fowler Avenue. And along Busch Boulevard, long-awaited pedestrian safety and beautification projects may soon unfold. 

There’s even a unique greenspace in the works that will link the mall property, to become a 100-acre mixed-use development, with the VA hospital.

“What we’ve learned in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is that people fare well when they can safely get outside. It keeps them healthier and more active,” says Sharpe. “This is one reason why we want to continue improving the amount of greenspaces and trails in the Uptown District and why the pathway connecting the VA hospital and the mixed-use entertainment research development at the University Mall property is so vital.”

The $1 million greenspace connecting University Mall and the VA hospital will also see redevelopment to the lake between the two properties and a new shuttle bus connection.
Cleared Sears parcel ushers in a new mixed-use complex  

One of the most visible changes along Fowler Avenue in recent months was the demolition of the two-story building that housed Sears, a 200,000-square-foot department store that opened to shoppers a year after University Mall debuted in August 1974. As RD Management Chief Development Strategist Christopher Bowen says, removing the Sears building marks an important step forward for transforming University Mall into the Uptown District.

“The University Mall had well over a half dozen separate parcels representing approximately 100 acres that needed to be reassembled into one uniform tract under one owner. The Sears parcel was a very key acquisition in our multi-year, multi-parcel assemblage.” 

Part of what makes the Sears site particularly critical to building out an upcoming phase of the Uptown District is its overall size – 17 acres, or nearly half the size of the 50-acre Water Street Tampa development in downtown.

“Parcels of this size are very limited and present opportunities to implement current best practices in urban planning to maximize economic and social benefits to the local community,'' Bowen says. "Further, this new 17-acre development zone is key to our overall development as a large ‘connector’ tract for further integrating our mixed-use, tech, and research village site with USF, the medical district, and the VA hospital and research campus.” 

The Sears property offers a large-scale, ground-up development opportunity in the Uptown District masterplan and can accommodate a dual-flag hotel project, three 250,000-square-foot office buildings, a 400-unit apartment complex, street-level shops and restaurants, and a parking structure. The diversity of such a mixed-use development represents a dramatic departure from the previous retail-centric nature of the site, and that’s just one reason rebranding University Mall as the Uptown District is a key aspect of redeveloping the site.

“The business model upon which most retail malls were based has run its course,” Bowen remarks. “Even the best remaining mall properties in America have been facing significant challenges to stay relevant to and within their respective markets.”

Research labs will open in Uptown 

A significant share of the new space in the Uptown District will be devoted to medical research and laboratory facilities. Given its infusion of technology infrastructure, the development is being branded RITHM at Uptown, with the RITHM acronym hearkening to what Bowen says are the five main elements in the Uptown community: Research, Innovation, Technology, Habitat, and Medicine or RITHM.

“I believe a super-class-category, community tech incubator must be at the heart of our property’s plan going forward. A plan that transitions from one large building of over 1,400,000 square feet specializing in one use type -- retail -- to dozens of buildings of all shapes and sizes, anchored by science, technology, and the arts, connected to one another through new walkways, streets, and plazas, and supporting dozens of new uses and the needs of thousands of people on a 24/7 basis,” Bowen says. 

One of these tech developments, the USF Institute of Applied Engineering, is already in the works at the Uptown District. This USF anchor is under construction in the RITHM Labs, a two-story, 100,000-square-foot skylighted structure in the existing mall facility that also houses a 14-unit food court, 225-seat lecture hall, and a connected 1,540-car parking garage. 

“The Institute of Applied Engineering, which recently won an $85 million contract from the Department of Defense, will be a key anchor within the RITHM Labs community tech hub,” explains Bowen. “Through their ‘Engineering Everywhere’ mission, the Institute will attract many other like-minded scientists, engineers, and businesses to join them in building an engaging and collaborative ecosystem of exploration and innovation right here in Uptown.” 

While the USF Institute of Applied Engineering is still in the construction phase, another lab space at the Uptown District is already marking its first year there. The AMRoC Fab Lab is geared toward helping young people discover and explore opportunities for education and careers in the robotic sciences.

“We received a $25,000 check for youth programs, the University Area Community Development Center Impact Award helped, and we recently joined the Uptown Chamber of Commerce,” explains Terri Willingham, executive director of the nonprofit Foundation for Community Driven Innovation

The lab, which opened in June 2019, typically hosts as many as 50 kids at a time. However, in recent months the AMRoC Fab Lab has been operating mostly as a virtual entity that continues teaching robotics and other scientific principles online. The pandemic has inspired many in the community to donate their time in making protective plastic face shields using 3-D printing machines at the AMRoC Fab Lab.

Willingham says the face shield project, part of a philanthropic partnership with Michael Guinn of MRG 3D, has seen volunteers produce more than 1,000 face shields.

“Guinn has made nearly 20,000 face shields over the past several weeks virtually nonstop -- he even has a cot in his workspace,” Willingham explains. “We’re giving these away for free to first responders and selling them to the general public for $5 each.” 

Even with volunteers visiting the lab staggered schedules to produce and print the plastic face shields, the foot traffic remains but a trickle of what it once was before COVID. But, she says, the support from the mall’s development team has been stellar.

“RD Management has been amazing,'' Willingham says. "They make it possible for us to be here and to be a part of the redevelopment of the Uptown District.” 

USF builds multistory research lab on Fowler Avenue

Just east of the University Mall site, USF recently broke ground on a state-of-the-art research facility that aims to blend researchers, patent officers, entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations in a three-story, 120,000-square-foot space. The building, soon to rise as a landmark at the northeast corner of Fowler Avenue and Spectrum Boulevard, becomes the first new major development at the USF Research Park since 2005. 

“The intention is to bring new collaborators and businesses into the community,” says Director of Operations at the University of South Florida Research Park Director of Operations Allison Madden.

“We’re not trying to put a hole in another building, but rather we want to create new opportunities for the Uptown District,'' Madden says. "A rising tide lifts all ships in this community.” 

Slated for opening in the fall of 2021, the new commercial innovation building will serve as a hub for those who work and study at the USF Research Park.

“There will be dining and retail amenities for use by students, researchers, and visitors at the research park, and this helps to consolidate those amenities in one place,” Madden says. “We will be partnering with a major vendor.”

While the $42 million facility designed and built by Skanska and marketed by CBRE will serve as an important expansion at the USF campus, other innovative projects are sure to come at the university.

“The research park has 112 acres and still plenty of space to grow.” 

The lab represents another major victory for the goals of the Uptown District, which recently has also seen construction begin on a new $350 million medical facility for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. The cancer center, opening in October 1986 as a standalone patient care and research building on the USF campus, was first named as one of only 51 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers years ago and has outgrown its landlocked space. Moffitt’s new medical facility will rise along McKinley Boulevard a few blocks northeast of Busch Gardens. 

Busch Boulevard to get a makeover 

On any given day, tens of thousands of motorists drive along Busch Boulevard on the south side of the Uptown District. It has served as a major east-west corridor for decades, once known as Temple Terrace Highway until being renamed by the city of Tampa Busch Boulevard in 1968 to honor its status as the gateway to the area’s flagship entertainment attraction Busch Gardens. 

However, city leaders aren’t any longer so fond of the corridor serving as one of the first things visitors to the region see on their way to a fun-filled day at Busch Gardens. The road is showing its age, as is the hodgepodge of factories, motels, and strip malls tracing it. And the artery is a menace to pedestrians, many of whom have been severely injured or killed over the years trying to cross the busy six-lane road. 

Many city leaders are taking up improvements for Busch Boulevard as a mission, including Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera. Representing the city’s District 7, Viera says there are two agendas for the thoroughfare.

“Number one is safety. We have to make Busch Boulevard safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and we can do that by lowering the speed limit along that road by five or 10 miles per hour, adding better lighting, and making other safety enhancements.”

The second agenda? “Improving the quality of life along the corridor,'' Viera continues. "It’s a gateway for Busch Gardens, one of our city’s most important assets and economic engines and needs to be beautified.”

But he adds it’s not just about aesthetics. “Busch Boulevard serves many neighborhoods and the people in those neighborhoods need to have places to buy groceries, go to eat, even entertainment complexes to enjoy.” 

Then there’s another concern -- one that’s plagued Busch Boulevard for years: crime.

“We know there are many not-so-good things that go on at some of the developments along Busch [Boulevard], and this is not only a danger to the community, but it detracts from the quality of life along there.”

Viera says he and Uptown District leaders envision making Busch Boulevard an entertainment corridor and hope to see many of the rundown businesses, vacant lots, and other blighted properties transformed into fun and enriching businesses that serve both tourists and locals in the communities. 

“But we don’t want anyone to misunderstand our intentions,” adds Viera. “We’re not trying to change the face of the community. Just the opposite -- we want to use the human capital in these neighborhoods to build on these developments and make the quality of life better for them. The University Area Community Development Center would not be involved with this and providing grants if they didn’t see the social justice issues we are trying to address.” 

Ultimately, he sees the improvements that are in the works as legacy goals that can be met through a combination of community cooperation and political will.

“Take a look at downtown Tampa and Channelside 20 years ago -- what were those communities then? Now look at them today. With the government and private sector working together, we can move mountains.” 

Here is a link to watch and listen to a conversation with Mark Sharpe and Christopher Bowen at Cafe Con Tampa.
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.