Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Sue Carlton: For a great downtown, build … with caution

The other night I got a bad case of St. Pete Envy.

We Tampa dwellers ventured across the bridge to downtown St. Petersburg only to come upon all these people — strolling, jogging, shopping, heading into restaurants, eating ice cream outside in the cool evening. They sipped wine at cafe tables and were uber-hip atop this new rooftop bar with spectacular water views, something right out of South Beach except with grownups who were fully clothed. Even dogs being walked on Beach Drive looked like they were posing for a Chamber of Commerce ad for what a great downtown looks like. And did I mention it was a school night?

Oh look, a St. Pete friend said, a new chocolate shop, as if it had sprung up overnight instead of being hard-fought and loudly heralded as is every resident-friendly addition downtown Tampa manages to score. When we took our table at a busy restaurant, there was former Republican and rumored gubernatorial guy Charlie Crist circulating at a political event. (So I got dinner and a show.)

I will arm-wrestle to the death over my belief that Tampa is the more interesting town, politically and otherwise, Crist notwithstanding. Tampa has come a million miles with projects like morphing the old federal courthouse into a charming boutique hotel and the lovely ribbon of Riverwalk. But you can't deny the St. Pete vibe that makes you think: Oh yeah, I could live here.

No one is more determined to make people say the same of downtown Tampa than Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has had his moments of St. Pete Envy. This is why he dyes the Hillsborough River green for St. Patrick's Day, rallies food trucks and gamely jumps on a bike in shirtsleeves and tie to bolster safety in a place not known for it. It is why he is Bob the Builder, now pushing the plan for a 36-story residential tower on a patch of land between the river, the library and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts at downtown's northwest edge.

It is also why he is getting something he has seen little of as mayor: push back.

Because there are legitimate worries about the size and impact of this high-rise project, about traffic, about how it will block the river Tampa is only starting to fully enjoy. Critics, me included, see that piece of land and can't imagine all this there.

But even those who disagree with him have to know Buckhorn's heart is behind his city. He says he gets that it's hard for some people to envision this project, but that it's his job "to imagine what we could be, not what we have been." And that is classic Mayor Buckhorn.

For the record, two other downtown residences by the same group behind this one — the sleek SkyPoint and Element — are each worthy of some Tampa envy. They are also infinitely more appropriately located.

The City Council already agreed to sell the land for the new project, so what's left are rezonings and traffic matters. Concerns about the impact of the 380 apartments, 620-space parking garage, 10,000 square feet of retail to make up Residences at the Riverwalk were enough to get council members to table it until August. Taking a breath to really consider your city's future is a good thing.

No question, downtown Tampa needs that residential vibe to be all it can — alive, vibrant, a place you want to live. But not in haste. And in the right place.

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