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Can a city’s downtown be its portal to prosperity?

A $3 billion investment in Water Street Tampa is connecting the Tampa Bay region to the global knowledge economy

Tampa’s Water Street will include 9 million square feet of office, housing, arts, culture, food, shopping … and a new University of South Florida Medical School—all within a walking downtown.

By David Dixon, FAIA, Stantec’s Urban Places Planning and Urban Design Leader (Boston, Massachusetts)

This piece reflects a presentation to “Gateway Portals to the City: Infrastructure for Sustainable Urbanization,” a conference sponsored by United Nations Habitat and the American Institute of Architects and held at UN Headquarters in New York on May 19, 2017.

In a 2013 Atlantic article, “The Boom Towns and Ghost Towns of the New Economy”—provocatively subtitled “Mapping the winners and losers since the crash”—Richard Florida chronicled which US regions have built a competitive edge for the right kinds of economic growth coming out of the Great Recession and how they did it. The “winners" are all anchored by major cities and host research universities. However, many regions boast both anchors but don’t yet qualify as “winners.”

What are they missing? Successful regions have transformed their urban core with a mix of uses and animated public realms that translate density into walkability. Florida points out that these lively urban environments “provide ideal ecosystems for entrepreneurial innovation” and in so doing serve as portals for prosperity—opening the gates through which the global knowledge economy, with its higher-paying jobs, rising productivity, and increasing investment—flows into regional economies.

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Tampa Bay offers an excellent case study of a region determined to join the winners. With more than 3 million people, it is falls roughly between Seattle and Denver in terms of population. Like those two regions, Tampa hosts a major research institution—the University of South Florida (USF). Yet, while Seattle and Denver both rank among the top 10 regions in terms of knowledge-jobs growth since the Great Recession, Tampa Bay ranks among the also-rans. It’s not a coincidence that downtown Seattle and Denver house roughly four to eight times as many residents (and jobs) as downtown Tampa. Moreover, those cities offer the vibrant streets and animated public spaces that population density supports.

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An upstart reclaims its downtown
Today, however, the Tampa Bay region is on the move. The regional transit agency intends to be one of the first in the nation to introduce shared autonomous vehicles (SAVs) to improve downtown mobility. USF leads a coalition of business and government leaders that recently launched a regional innovation alliance. Perhaps most significantly, a team of private investors and developers—with city financial and political support—has drawn up plans for a dense, mixed-use, amenity-rich downtown district to serve as the regional portal to the global knowledge economy.

Downtown Tampa hasn’t seen a new class A office building in three decades. But the same demographic and market dynamics powering downtown revivals across North America are at work in the region.

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Like every major US city, Tampa’s household formation has shifted decisively toward singles and couples, who will make up roughly three-quarters of all new households that form between now and 2030. Higher-income households have reversed course and begun moving into urban neighborhoods—along with the educated millennials sought by knowledge industries facing a growing shortage of educated workers. As a result, investment is flowing into the urban core.

Tampa’s mayor and its downtown partnership—Strategic Property Partners (SPP) and Cascade Investments LLP—are now tapping these dynamics to transform roughly 50 acres of surface parking that separates downtown from the Garrison Channel into Water Street Tampa—a vibrant urban district with roughly 9 million square feet of mixed-use development.

Walkable density is one of the key aspects of a master plan we’re developing for Brooklyn Village in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the largest redevelopment projects in the Carolinas. The plan will bring more than 2.2 million square feet of apartments, condos, offices, stores, hotels, and parks to a 17-acre downtown site. 

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Creating a 50 acre live/work/play/study/create/research district
Even when it represents more than $3 billion in private investment and expands a dormant downtown—the district’s scale alone can’t jump-start a knowledge economy. Working with the City, USF, the Tampa Downtown Partnership, cultural institutions, and multiple other partners, the SPP team has focused on what can create the jump-start: programming and designing Water Street as a live/work/play/study/create/research district whose streets teem with life. This district’s vitality will attract knowledge workers and the jobs and investment that follow them, spur innovation, and create a portal that connects the region to the global knowledge economy.

Achieving this vitality has meant meeting and surpassing five key thresholds:

  1. Walkable density. By locating more than 5,000 lofts and condominiums; 10,000 to 15,000 jobs; and more than 1 million square feet of cultural facilities, hotels, and stores on 10 new city blocks, the district will achieve a compact critical mass that creates genuine walkability.
  2. Connectivity. In addition to the basics—linking to local streets, enhancing transit access (through streetcar service), and tying into the regional bikeway system—the district will extend and enrich waterfront access and create significant new downtown destinations that re-center the life of the region in its core. Significantly, the district will join the regional transit agency in helping Tampa leapfrog many of its peers to embrace shared autonomous mobility.
  3. Diverse choices. The district will avoid one-size-fits-all solutions in favor of diversity. Its streets will come to life with a mix of retail, culture, food, and public spaces that actively invite all kinds of lifestyles, cultures, ages, and ethnicities to share the district. The design of each street will give it a distinct personality—from a neighborhood Main Street lined with unique restaurants and stores to alleyways where pedestrians and service trucks mix by day and beer gardens spring up at night and on weekends. A variety of housing will appeal to households ranging from medical students to empty nesters, with lots of choices in between. Offices, housing, and hotels will share the district with significant arts and cultural venues, USF’s new medical school campus, and Amalie Arena (home to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning).
  4. Human scale. Recognizing that most people, despite protestations to the contrary, won’t walk for more than five minutes (a quarter mile) at a stretch, every part of the district will deliver connectivity, walkable density, and diversity of choices. These elements create the kind of urban vitality needed to draw knowledge workers, promote interaction, and nurture innovation.
  5. Authenticity. The district shuns the superficial “authenticity” that comes from mimicking historic architecture and place names in an environment that is entirely new. Instead, it will favor authenticity that stems from the presence of local makers, chefs, brewers, artists, and others who lead Tampa’s culture today. They’ll help shape the district’s character and ensure that it continues to symbolize the region’s living spirit.

Tampa’s multi-billion-dollar investment in its city core will be completed in three phases through 2027.

Also by David:

David is Stantec’s Urban Places Planning and Urban Design Leader. His team contributed to the master plan for Water Street. A sought-after expert and author in urban planning and design, David is known for helping create new, mixed-use urban districts. Based in Boston, David is the co-editor of “Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places” (Island Press, February 2018).

Even when it represents more than $3 billion in private investment and expands a dormant downtown—the district’s scale alone can’t jump-start a knowledge economy.

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