Monday, June 18, 2018
Business

Jeff Vinik, Tampa officials looking at changing streets near Times Forum

TAMPA — Decades ago, when Tampa's waterfront was warehouses and blue-collar jobs, the jumbled street grid at the southern end of downtown might not have been a problem.

But now that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has bought up 24 acres around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, he and city officials want to set the stage for an active, easy-access and pedestrian-friendly entertainment district.

That could mean changing some streets. Several near the forum are one-way, carrying generally faster-moving traffic. A couple are laid out on a true north-south axis, putting them at a slight angle to most of downtown's grid, which has more of a north-northwest orientation. There are a couple of dead ends, and one has a gap and an alignment that doesn't quite line up from block to block.

"The grid patterns down there just don't make a lot of sense," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week.

Buckhorn said the city is likely to take its own look at the grid, but Vinik has already started on a small scale.

First up: a block of Eunice Avenue from Morgan Street to Jefferson Street.

Vinik's companies have asked the city to close that section of Eunice. The City Council is scheduled to consider the request on Sept. 18.

The idea, according to the application to close the road, is to consolidate land on the north and south sides of Eunice "into a single site for urban development."

Part of that development would be a 202,000-square-foot office building that is the subject of a separate rezoning that Vinik's representatives applied for last month.

The 8- to 10-story building is proposed for the northeast corner of S Morgan Street and Channelside Drive, just north of the forum. That's part of the block affected by the requested closure of Eunice. Plans call for 195,000 square feet of offices, 4,000 square feet of restaurant space and 3,000 square feet of retail space. A separate parking garage would be built to the northeast of the project.

Vacating Eunice Avenue would allow Vinik's companies to build in part of what is now the right of way. As proposed, part of Eunice would remain a private driveway serving the development, though its alignment could be shifted. (Because Eunice is a brick street, Tampa officials say any bricks or granite curbs affected by the closure must be returned to the city.)

On a larger scale, Vinik has started to sketch the broad outlines of his plan and has begun to propose projects to make it a reality.

There's a 400-room hotel that would replace a parking lot just west of the forum.

There's Channelside Bay Plaza, where Vinik recently closed on a $7.1 million purchase. He has committed to spending at least $10 million to revive the waterfront mall.

And there's the newly proposed office building — potentially a new headquarters for mobile communications company Syniverse, one planning document hinted, though the tech company says it has no plans to move downtown.

"I think office (development) has always been contemplated as part of the mix," Buckhorn said. "You don't want everything to be the same. You want people to live, work and play in the same environment."

That, in turn, is encouraging other interest. The owner of Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill near Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg is working with Tampa investors to open a Ferg's Tampa at a spot north of the forum.

At least five sports bars have come and gone at that Channelside Drive location, but the ambition, capital and organizational sophistication behind Vinik's investments are seen as a potential catalyst.

"It's really difficult to make it in that area downtown without that kind of synergy," Ferg's Tampa attorney Mark Bentley told the City Council, which last week approved expanding the business' alcohol-sales area to accommodate nearly 800 patrons. "Hopefully, some of these projects that you're reading about in the paper (that) Mr. Vinik's proposing will really boost the economic climate down there."

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

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