Sparkman Wharf opens Friday with a new view on Tampa's waterfront

Sparkman Wharf, Water Street Tampa's re-incarnation of Channelside Bay Plaza, opens today with a plan to succeed where Channelside failed.
Published November 26
Updated November 30

TAMPA — To succeed in the same spot where Channelside Bay Plaza flopped, the developers of Sparkman Wharf have added three things lacking in the original building:

Sunshine. Views of the water. And a diversity of tenants that goes beyond a choice of restaurants.

"Channelside was 100 percent entertainment-driven, and it was also very insular," said James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners, which is opening Sparkman Wharf on Friday as the first long-awaited and much-hyped project in the $3 billion Water Street Tampa development near Amalie Arena. When it opened 18 years ago, Channelside was meant to be a festival marketplace, but it was so closed-off and inward-looking that it was possible to visit and not even notice that the property sits just 60 feet from the Garrison Channel.

"It didn't take advantage of the waterfront and the views that we have here," Nozar said Monday during a preview of Sparkman Wharf, which now features sweeping views of the shipping channels around downtown. Strategic also is adding office loft space where the long-closed theaters used to be. "We expect to have over 500 employees upstairs to really add much more daytime traffic here."

Moreover, he said, the Channel District has grown to encompass about 5,000 residents, with thousands more on Harbour Island. And within three blocks of the wharf, Water Street itself will include: a new 13-story home for the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, expected to open in late 2019 with 1,800 medical students, professors and researchers; a 26-story JW Marriott Hotel, expected to open in late 2020; a 20-story office building next to the USF med school; two apartment towers, now under construction, of 21 and 26 stories; and a 26-story tower with a Marriott Edition boutique hotel at its base, topped by 46 high-end condominiums.

To open up the complex, Strategic, a partnership between Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, last year demolished the southwest wing of Channelside Bay Plaza, once the home of long-gone restaurants such as Stump's Supper Club, Howl at the Moon and Margarita Mama's.

In its place, Sparkman Wharf will have:

• The Fermented Reality Biergarten, with more than 30 beers on tap, and 3,000 square feet of seating under a shady awning with cooling water misters. "At least half the taps are really going to be local almost all the time," co-owner Joel Bigham said.

• An artificial-turf lawn of not quite one acre with lawn games (cornhole, shuffleboard and an outdoor chess board with toddler-sized wooden pieces), a large high-definition television for movies and broadcasts of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games and a stage to be programmed by the Gasparilla Music Foundation with local bands on weekend nights. The lawn has seating for about 500, including Adironack loungers, upholstered love seats, bench swings and more than a dozen clusters of tables and chairs under umbrellas.

• A collection of 10 brightly painted shipping containers where a Who's Who of Tampa chefs will serve jerk-marinated grouper sandwiches, Detroit-style pizza, burgers, French-Vietnamese fusion, Mexican, gulf-raised oysters, tapas, açaí bowls, gelato and coffee. The only original Channelside tenant staying is Splitsville Southern + Social, which did a renovation of its own with new games and a new menu.

SNEAK PREVIEW: Chefs offer a taste of what's coming to Sparkman Wharf

"I've never seen anything like it in Tampa, and that was what was so thrilling," said chef Jeannie Pierola, a four-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist who is opening edison’s swigamajig divebar and fishkitchen at Sparkman Wharf. "When they painted a picture for us, we were over the moon, because the idea of putting all those things together is a foodie chef's dream come true."

Many of Sparkman Wharf’s outdoor seats overlook the waterfront, and on the 330 days a year when a cruise ship is not docked out back, more tables, chairs, umbrellas and games set up on the dock itself will give visitors a chance to hang out even closer to the water. In coming months, the port's security fence will be replaced with something that folds down to waist-height with a rail to hold drinks. In the long run, Strategic is talking with the city about extending the Riverwalk to Sparkman Wharf. And it plans to add more art, shade and retailers.

"This will be ever-evolving and ever-growing, but in the meantime, it looks pretty good to us," Nozar said. "We're pretty excited about the programming and all the things that you will see this week."

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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