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Tampa’s $3 billion waterfront plan aims to reshape downtown

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The 53-acre Water Street plan will create a new neighborhood hoping to be a national draw

A rendering of Water Street, a new $3 billion development in Tampa, once it’s complete.
Strategic Property Partners

Tampa’s waterfront is about to be transformed, with an ambitious $3 billion plan already in motion to turn 53 acres into a sustainable mixed-use district that will see 23,000 people reside within, work at, and visit each day.

A joint effort between Strategic Property Partners, a real estate firm backed by Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, and Cascade Investment, run by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the newly titled Water Street project seeks to add 9 million square feet of new buildings over the next decade, creating a unified neighborhood developers hope will become a destination both locally and nationwide. The first phase should be completed by 2020.

“Compared with other Sun Belt cities we see as competitors, such as Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix, and Charlotte, Tampa has been behind the times and under the radar,” says James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners. “There hasn’t been as much institutional and national resources invested here, and there isn’t really a core to the city. This is a huge opportunity.”

The 53-acre site on the Garrison Channel and Hillsborough Bay has traditionally been plagued by many of the same planning issues that have hindered other urban neighborhoods in the U.S.. A highway divided the area from the rest of the city, much of the warehouses and working waterfront was transformed into surface parking, and a smattering of big-ticket projects meant to revitalize the area, such as a convention center and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s arena, didn’t create critical mass. Nozar believes a development of this scale is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to both build momentum downtown and knit together disparate neighborhoods.

“We’re the donut downtown around which everything else has developed,” he said.

Named after the area’s main street, and previously referred to as “Vinikville” by local press, Water Street should improve upon past efforts with a more concentrated, coordinated plan, according to its backers.

Nozar spoke of a unified look and feel that would reflect the waterfront location, including more sustainable design and better transportation options. Water Street will be the first WELL-Certified district in the world, meaning it will meet the new, evolving standard which prioritizes design for health and well-being, such as daylighting, outdoor access, and air quality. In addition, new buildings will aim for LEED certification, and the district will include 12.9 acres of parks as well as a waterfront walkway, roughly a quarter of the total area. Nozar says the development team, which is working with nearly a dozen architects (whom it won’t name), is prioritizing communal green space, open rooftops, and rooftop gardens.

Currently, construction crews are reworking the street grid, having begun infrastructure improvements and road work last summer. Nozar hopes additional changes make the district more walkable and transit friendly, including landscaping and new parks. An effort by the city is underway to modernize the city’s small streetcar line, which would help link up Water Street to other neighborhoods in Tampa, and Nozar says developers have discussed the idea of completing a downtown circulator that would eventually connect the waterfront to the airport and the University of South Florida.

As crews rework the neighborhood’s infrastructure, the development team expects the first big building, the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute, a 380,000 square-foot facility set to break ground in August, with an expected 2019 opening. The district’s central cooling plant is also underway.

The big push is expected to start between March and June of 2018, when two hotels, multiple residential buildings, and several office buildings break ground, all part of the first phase of the project that, when done, should give Water Street a “sense of place,” says Nozar.

Eventually, the district will include 3,500 new rental and for-sale residences, nearly doubling the number of housing units available downtown; and two new hotels with over 650 new rooms, including Tampa’s first 5-star hotel.