Hang around Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and it won't take long for him to say he wants to make the Hillsborough River the center of downtown Tampa and not its western edge.
On Wednesday, Buckhorn and the Tampa Housing Authority rolled out the draft of a 10-year plan to help make that happen.
"This is big," Buckhorn said of the transformation envisioned for 120 acres west of the river and north of Interstate 275. "This is bodacious. This is exciting. This will be a game-changer."
The proposed "West River" plan would start with demolishing the World War II-era public housing at North Boulevard Homes. The imposing concrete-block apartments would be replaced by a more traditional neighborhood with walkable streets.
A total of 820 apartments would be bulldozed, making way for more than 1,600 new townhomes and apartments. The new housing would include both subsidized housing and units that sell or rent for market rates. With more working- and middle-class residents, businesses on Main Street should see more customers, officials say.
The plan also includes recommendations to open access to the river and build mid-rise apartments on 12 acres south of Columbus Drive where the city now parks utility trucks.
"The river and the proximity to downtown will make this a very attractive live, work and play environment," Buckhorn said. Residents "can live here and walk to work. They can ride their bikes to work. … That changes the entire dynamic of West Tampa."
The study area encompasses two public housing complexes, four schools (Dunbar and Just elementaries, Stewart Middle and Blake High) and the city's truck maintenance yard, which is a block from the river, between Rome and Oregon avenues.
Various government entities own 80 percent of the land in the West River study area. Under the plan, several of those governments would swap land to make various projects happen. School baseball diamonds, for example, would be moved to land now covered by part of North Boulevard Homes.
At North Boulevard Homes, the housing authority would relocate the 1,700 residents, just as it has done with 4,000 to 5,000 families in areas such as College Hill and Central Park Village.
North Boulevard Homes, the authority's oldest complex, was built in 1941. The process of getting the approval and money to relocate residents could take up to three years. Residents would have the option to return to the neighborhood after it's redeveloped.
The plan also envisions:
• Creating commercial anchors at key intersections such as Rome Avenue and Main Street.
• Replacing Hillsborough County's West Tampa Neighborhood Service Center on N Rome Avenue with a new community center a few blocks to the southeast.
• Relocating baseball diamonds and a quarter-mile track that now overlook the river behind Just Elementary and Stewart Middle schools. That way, Willow Avenue could be extended all the way north to the river. The schools would stay where they are. The sports fields and track would end up south of Spruce Street where part of the North Boulevard Homes now sits. No ballfields would be eliminated.
• Creating a commercial "Waterfront Square" where Willow meets the river, near Rick's on the River.
Willow also would be expected to become a better connection between neighborhoods in the West River area and the waterfront. It also could connect to the emerging commercial area south of Cass Street near the University of Tampa.
In the long run, construction costs for everything in the plan could be in the range of $350 million, officials said.
For the first phase of the project, which includes relocating public housing tenants and tearing down North Boulevard Homes, officials plan to apply for another $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant.
Tampa won one of the grants in late 2012 to help develop the Encore Tampa project now rising where the Central Park Village public housing apartments once stood.
As at Encore, officials expect the Choice Neighborhood grant would be a key piece of a larger public and private financing plan. At Encore, officials leveraged the $30 million grant to bring in another $78 million in funding for a total impact of $108 million.
Buckhorn said a transformation on this scale won't happen overnight, and officials plan to continue public engagement and outreach for several years.
Some people will oppose the change, Buckhorn said, but he added that the status quo doesn't work. He recalled going to the scene of a recent double shooting at North Boulevard Homes, half a block from a church, "standing among shell casings and looking at a pool of blood."
"When I look at the little kids that were there," he said, "they deserve a better life. They deserve the opportunity to succeed, and they can't succeed in this environment. The odds are stacked against them. It is our moral obligation to change their lives and to change this neighborhood."
West River study area