TAMPA — A city-led effort to reimagine and redevelop the western bank of the Hillsborough River is looking for a private-sector partner.
Working with City Hall, the Tampa Housing Authority last month issued a request for developers to work on a master plan for 120 acres near the river. It's an area mostly north of Interstate 275, south of Columbus Drive and west from the river to Rome Avenue.
The area is 80 percent government-owned and includes:
• The Housing Authority's North Boulevard Homes and Mary Bethune public housing complexes, which cover more than 40 acres.
• The 23-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and a 12-acre city truck yard just a block from the river.
• Four public schools: Dunbar and Just elementaries, Stewart Middle and Blake High.
For Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the master plan is an early step in a long-term campaign to make the riverfront the center of downtown Tampa.
"Everyone agrees it's a vastly underutilized piece of property and could be put to far better uses," Buckhorn said.
Except for the schools, he said, "you could design and master plan an entire community there that would better serve the residents of West Tampa, would take advantage what is waterfront property and really create a community people would want to be a part of."
It's a vision that Buckhorn has gotten help with from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C.
Over the past year, the institute has sent teams of experts to Tampa to make suggestions about ways to make downtown Tampa prettier, more active, more welcoming to pedestrians and less dominated by cars and parking lots.
To help sketch out a vision for the riverfront, Buckhorn picked three local officials — City Attorney James Shimberg Jr., city economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh and Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority's chief operating officer — to join him on a yearlong fellowship offered by the institute.
With the request it issued last month, the Housing Authority is looking for a company to help plan the redevelopment of the North Boulevard Homes apartments and Bethune high-rise.
But that's just for starters. The 40-plus acres where North Boulevard Homes sits is expected to be the primary site of the area's redevelopment. As a result, the scope of the master planning will take in the entire 120-acre West Tampa Study Area.
"This can only help us," said Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association & Crimewatch.
New stores both near the river and along Main Street, as well as the on-street parking to accommodate them, would be great, he said. But mostly, he welcomes the city's work.
"I bug (Buckhorn) all the time: 'Don't forget about the west bank,' " he said.
The deadline for developers to respond is Monday.
A contract could be awarded in November, and officials hope to have a master plan complete by March 2013. The Housing Authority expects to spend $200,000 to $350,000 on the master plan, depending on the scope of work it negotiates with the developer it chooses.
Buckhorn said the schedule for any work will be influenced by funding, whether it's a Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or private investment, and when it would be available.
"It depends on a lot of things, and we won't know any of that until we get a little further down the road," he said. "This is truly just the beginning of the process."
The Housing Authority has 821 apartments in the study area: 150 in the Bethune high-rise and another 671 at North Boulevard Homes. But the request for developers says they are "obsolete and no longer demonstrate long-term physical and social viability as decent, safe and affordable housing."
Those apartments were built as early as 1941. The agency says it wants to involve residents in each stage of the planning and redevelopment process and to relocate families so that they end up with more access to affordable housing in more economically diverse communities.
Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick said he's familiar with the Housing Authority's plan to redevelop the North Boulevard Homes site.
"That's going to happen," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
The Housing Authority has kept residents of North Boulevard Homes informed about its plans, said David Gallon, the president of the residents council for North Boulevard Homes.
"Most people agree that it's time for a change and better living conditions over here in West Tampa," he said.
But Reddick said he hadn't heard about the master plan for the larger 120-acre West Tampa study area until late last month. Local officials, he said, need to keep West Tampa residents involved during the larger study — something Buckhorn says will happen.
"Even though it's just in discussion," Reddick said, "the community needs to be informed about it."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.