Can a city’s downtown be its portal to prosperity?
September 26, 2017
September 26, 2017
A $3 billion investment in Water Street Tampa is connecting the Tampa Bay region to the global knowledge economy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Tampa’s multi-billion-dollar investment in its city core will be completed in three phases through 2027.
This article 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.