The story of Tampa begins on the water.
Spanish conquistadors struggled to control where the Hillsborough River meets the bay. The harbor kept Tampa alive after the twin calamities of the hurricane of 1848 and the Civil War. As the century turned, Henry B. Plant brought his railroad to the water, giving birth to the city.
Now the waterfront that built the city stands in its way.
Tampa's industrial past still blocks its civic future. That's why there's a great swath of empty land separating downtown from the Channel District. It looks as if some catastrophe left a crater between the SunTrust building on the west and the Towers of Channelside on the east.
The result: The Channel District is a disjointed patchwork of old and new. It's the arena, the aquarium, the apartments alongside the old flour mill, the railroad, the barren parking lots.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn's job is to bury the past — and then build over it.
"We're focused on making the waterfront the center of the downtown experience," he said. "Obviously Channelside is a big part of that. That's where the bulk of the residential living is. There's even more potential for development there. It is the link between Ybor City and downtown.
"It's a burgeoning area, and it's taken on a life of its own. But it's a part of a much larger mosaic that has to be connected."
His vision needs help: a vigorous economy, a deep-pocketed player like Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. A baseball stadium would be nice, but so would a grocery store.
To finish downtown, Buckhorn knows he must finish the Channel District.
"I am focused on finishing it all."
• • •
Meridian Avenue is the Channel District's official western edge. The district stretches east to the cruise ship terminals along the Ybor Channel.
The north boundary is the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Head south, and the district ends where the Channelside Bay Plaza entertainment and retail complex and the Florida Aquarium sit along the wa ter. The names Channelside and Channel District are often used interchangeably.
Once this was all dominated by wharves and warehouses, just like the rest of downtown Tampa's waterfront. The city has been trying to undo that ever since.
But like downtown itself, much has held back the Channel District.
In the 1970s, residents fled downtown for the suburbs. For decades, Buckhorn recalled, no one really lived in downtown Tampa. Not even as recently as when he left the City Council in 2003.
"When I left office there were about 600 people living downtown," Buckhorn said, "and 300 of them lived in the Morgan Street jail."
Retail followed everyone out of town. In 1967, Tampa's first mall, WestShore Plaza, opened 5 miles from downtown.
But it was the office buildings Al Austin built near the mall in the 1960s that truly reshaped Tampa. The West Shore business district is now the highest concentration of commercial office development in Florida.
Imagine what downtown Tampa's skyline would look like — and that dead zone that abuts the Channel District — if it had Westshore's 12 million square feet of office space. Imagine what that real estate black hole would look like with even a fraction of West Shore's two malls, 38 hotels, 250 restaurants, 4,000 businesses and 94,000 workers.
"It's been a huge factor," Buckhorn said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to have two competing, highly dense urban districts within miles of each other, and that's what Tampa has."
The real estate boom of the 2000s fueled the Channel District's growth. Condo sales boomed — but it was actually a bubble that burst in 2007. Completed developments struggled to find tenants. As lending tightened, new projects stalled. The condos are filling up again, but at fire-sale prices.
Then there's Channelside Bay Plaza, the entertainment and retail project that was supposed to revitalize the area.
When it opened in 2001, critics immediately pounced on its setup. It's like a fort, closed off from both the street and the water. Worse, no one yet lived close enough to support it. It also had to compete with the Centro Ybor entertainment complex that opened the year before just 2 miles away.
Channelside Bay Plaza has withered over the years and now sits nearly empty, mired in legal and financial troubles.
The Channel District, along with downtown, took another hit in 2010 when Hillsborough County voters defeated a light rail referendum. To this day, Tampa Bay is still one of the nation's largest metro areas without light rail.
Then there's the ConAgra flour mill. It's a 74-year-old factory that employs more than 35, produces 1.5 million pounds of flour a day and requires its own rail spur.
It's also the last vestige of the waterfront's industrial past, smack dab inside that empty downtown crater. The more condos that rise in the Channel District, the more sorely out of place the squat factory looks in the emerging downtown.
The mill can't just be demolished, though. The owners are open to relocating, but that will likely require significant public investment.
In the meantime, no one seems to want to build a shiny new store or condo tower next door.
• • •
Progress in downtown Tampa can be measured by mayors:
Bob Martinez, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Tampa Convention Center; Sandy Freedman, the Florida Aquarium; Dick Greco, the Marriott Waterside Hotel, Channelside, the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the trolley; Pam Iorio, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children's Museum and two waterfront parks, Cotanchobee and Curtis Hixon.
Now the job falls to Buckhorn.
"We've got good bones as a city," he said. "We've had mayors that have planted significant projects in this community, largely along the water.
"I've said it from day one: I think my job is to connect the dots . . . to fill in where they left off."
But Buckhorn says it's not his job to erect tall towers or close big deals. He wants to make downtown a place where investors do that work for him.
His schedule one recent weekend revealed how he plans to do that: He hung out at the sixth annual Bicycle Bash in the Channel District, shopped at the downtown market on Franklin Street and attended the Erase Hate concert in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
By organizing those events, the city brought more than 5,000 people downtown. That's how the mayor believes he can make downtown a more livable, inviting place — and it doesn't take new construction to do that.
"I think there's no question that downtown is alive," Buckhorn said. "There's a buzz that hasn't been there in a long time. People are looking at downtown with fresh eyes."
And despite the downturn, downtown is still growing.
More condos are coming to the Channel District now that Pier House broke ground in February. The $55 million development is slated to add more than 350 studios and apartments, two parking garages, 5,000 square feet of retail space and a new public park along 11th Street.
In March, the University of South Florida opened the $38 million, three-story Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, a new cutting-edge robotic surgery training center.
Developers are also leasing space for what would be downtown's first new office tower in two decades. If the SouthGate project breaks ground, it would add 20 stories, a 1,200-car parking garage and a 350-room hotel to the western edge of the downtown crater.
"I think that's the beginning of the beginning," said Communications Equity Associates vice president Ken Jones, who was part of a local group of real estate titans that recently tried to bid on the Channelside lease. "That could kick off a lot of interesting and exciting redevelopment for the downtown area."
• • •
So, how can the city spur growth in the dead zone between downtown and the Channel District?
The development cognoscenti have some ideas.
The biggest need, believe it or not, is a grocery store.
Buckhorn called it the "tipping point" for downtown growth.
"We don't have adequate infrastructure, or a grocery store," said Marvin Meeks of the boutique real estate firm Urban Living TampaBay. "You have to leave the neighborhood to do anything."
A grocery store in the district would attract residents from all over — Harbour Island, Ybor City, Tampa Heights — who don't have their own. The only option is the Publix on Bayshore Boulevard, a smaller store with a cramped parking lot.
Ken Stoltenberg, the director of developer Mercury Advisors, thinks the Channel District and downtown need a more diverse mix of amenities, especially more greenspace.
"If you look at the things that downtown Tampa doesn't have right now, I would try to put that down there," he said. "Downtown recreational fields, soccer fields, baseball fields."
Then there's the Riverwalk. When completed in a few years, the 2.6-mile walkway will stretch from the east bank of the Hillsborough River all the way to the Times Forum.
Finally, Tampa will have a public waterfront — one that will connect the Channel District to the rest of downtown.
One idea is actually more of a fantasy: a baseball stadium. A new home for the Tampa Bay Rays in the Channel District would be a boon for the area, the cognoscenti agree, but downtown can succeed just fine without it.
"If the baseball stadium comes downtown somewhere it would be a great draw," Stoltenberg said. "Not that people would go to 81 games a year."
Downtown also needs something else it's never had: a plan.
Buckhorn, though, is about to change that.
In April the mayor started the $1.43 million InVision Tampa project. It will be the first 25-year master plan for developing downtown and both riverbanks, seamlessly connecting the urban core to its neighbors: the Channel District, Ybor City, Tampa Heights, North Hyde Park.
The plan will call for shrinking streets, slowing traffic and expanding sidewalks, making the downtown core more friendly to pedestrians, to sidewalk shops and cafes. That's how the mayor will connect the city's dots.
"It will create a much more livable, walkable, pedestrian-friendly, retail-driven downtown," Buckhorn said.
The No. 1 thing, everyone agrees, is the economy. It needs to come back.
"The market forces are always the biggest thing," Stoltenberg said. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
• • •
There's a human element that is also needed to help the Channel District finally realize its potential: a guiding hand.
Jeff Vinik could play that role.
Vinik is seen as a savior of sorts. He spent what is believed to be $110 million to buy the hockey team, the Times Forum lease and 5.5 acres. Recently his partnerships bought another 12 acres across from the arena for $16.3 million.
He now has an interest in much of the undeveloped crater near the flour mill. Vinik also has a vision, one he recently tried to carry out. The Lightning owner and his partners were the front-runners to buy the Channelside lease.
Their designs emulated the Los Angeles entertainment-retail complex L.A. Live. It's a massive mix of living, work and play space next to a sports arena. The Vinik group's plan also called for connecting the Times Forum to Channelside by developing the two empty lots between them — perhaps by adding a high-rise — and then linking all of it to the Riverwalk.
Local politicos called Vinik's vision: "Tampa Live."
But all that's on hold.
Last month Vinik and his partners backed off plans to take over Channelside because of an impasse between the bank that foreclosed on it in 2010 and the previous owner. Vinik's representatives declined to comment this week to the Tampa Bay Times, but they have said that the Channelside situation will not impede their plans for the rest of his land holdings.
Still, Vinik and his partners will likely not bid again until Channelside is legally free and clear — and that will take considerable time.
"If they manage to get back on track and work with him, that will be a positive for downtown," said Austin, the Westshore developer. "Jeff Vinik's plan for Channelside might be a good beginning and get more things to happen."
Others see Buckhorn as the one who can finally make downtown happen.
"Certainly the mayor wants to make things happen now," Stoltenberg said. "I think he has a unique vision for the entire city. I think he's the type to go out and say 'Let's get things done.' "
Buckhorn has made it his mission to do just that. The urban core is his passion. When his daughters are grown, the mayor said, that's where he's going to retire to.
"I'm an urban guy. I love urban issues. I love cities. Cities to me are the heart and soul of this country," the mayor said. "They are the economic engines that drive this country, and the same is true of Tampa.
"This is the economic engine that will drive Tampa Bay."
Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.