TAMPA — What's remarkable about the 12 acres that the city of Tampa owns near the Hillsborough River is not what's there now: heavy trucks, pipes and acres of asphalt splotched with grease.
What's remarkable is what could be there someday: new homes, families and sunny places to eat or shop.
So, on Wednesday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn promised a transformation of the old industrial site on N Rome Avenue. And to get it going, he used a tractor-mounted claw to smash into an old cinderblock building known as "the outhouse."
The demolition marked the latest phase in a multiyear project to move the city's maintenance hub for the water and wastewater departments out of West Tampa to make room for a key piece of what city officials call the West River development.
"This is the beginning of a major, major project to redevelop the West Tampa area," Buckhorn said. "We're really focusing on making the river the center of everything we do."
Plans call for putting out a proposals request for developers to build on the N Rome Avenue property, which the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office estimates has a market value of $2.5 million. Buckhorn doesn't know what he expects to get for the site, since the city has not yet done an appraisal. Invitations to bid will probably go out in a few months.
The land has good views of downtown, and Buckhorn expected the property would be well-suited for an apartment complex with six- to eight-story buildings.
The operations yard is at 2609 N Rome Ave., a few blocks south of West Columbus Drive, one block from the river and near Rick's on the River restaurant. The city has moved 272 vehicles and more than 240 employees from the operations yard to new locations in East Tampa and Port Tampa Bay. Altogether, the moves will cost a little more than $20 million.
The site is a designated "brownfield," meaning it may have contamination that would need to be cleaned up. For now, the city will demolish nine buildings on the site but leave the asphalt in place. The eventual developer will be eligible for state tax credits and other incentives for doing the cleanup.
Along with redeveloping the N Rome Avenue site, the West River plan calls for:
• Demolishing 820 public housing apartments at North Boulevard Homes to make way for 1,600 new townhomes and apartments — some of them subsidized so that former residents of North Boulevard Homes can move back, others selling or renting for prices set on the open market.
• Replacing Hillsborough County's West Tampa Neighborhood Service Center on N Rome Avenue with a new community center a few blocks to the southeast.
• Creating commercial anchors at key intersections, such as N Rome Avenue and W Main Street.
• Moving baseball diamonds and a quarter-mile track that are now on the riverfront more toward the interior of the development. Stewart Middle and Just Elementary schools would stay where they are.
• Making Willow Avenue a better connection for the West River area, the waterfront and the booming area west of the University of Tampa.
Various local governments own 80 percent of the land in the 120-acre West River study area. The city, Tampa Housing Authority and private developers are expected to team up to redevelop the area. Over time, building everything in the plan could cost an estimated $350 million.
"This is the biggest project the city has ever undertaken," Buckhorn said. "It's massive in its scale. It won't be finished by the time I leave office, but it's important that we start."
Meanwhile, a longtime water department employee said he could see coming back to tour the redeveloped area. Equipment mechanic Henry Gray, 58, had worked at the N Rome Avenue yard since 1981 or 1982, and it always felt like home.
"I would love to see how it comes out," he said. "I might buy a condo over here."