Tampa plan charts downtown's future along the Hillsborough River

InVision Tampa calls for transforming the city center with a focus on the waterfront.
Published November 28 2012
Updated November 28 2012

TAMPA — After eight months of public meetings and social media outreach, City Hall on Tuesday rolled out a plan aimed at making downtown more of a neighborhood where families live much of their lives near the banks of the Hillsborough River.

"Our goal is that 10 years from now, that waterfront is the center of our downtown, not the western edge," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a news conference to mark the completion of a draft of the InVision Tampa plan.

Since early April, the city has gathered ideas and suggestions from 800-plus residents, businesses, property owners and others through a series of public forums and neighborhood workshops. More than 1,000 people submitted online comments through social media and virtual town hall meetings.

To help with the $1.4 million planning project, the city hired urban consultants from AECOM, which has worked on community plans from London to San Francisco to Hong Kong.

The 136-page plan focuses on what it calls the "center city" — the central business district, plus the Channel District, Ybor City, North Hyde Park, the University of Tampa, West Riverfront, Old West Tampa, Tampa Heights and V.M. Ybor.

"The center city plan is really about continuing on a path that we believe that Tampa is already on," AECOM project manager Pete Sechler said, "to become a more livable place, a place with strong neighborhoods, a diversified and healthy downtown" with "many ways to connect to the river and to the water."

Based on public feedback, city officials came up with an overarching vision: "a community of livable places, connected people and collaborative progress that embraces and celebrates its river and waterfront."

The plan outlines five "building blocks," as well as moves the city could make to:

• Reimagine and refocus activity along the Hillsborough River. This would include not only completing the Riverwalk, but eventually expanding it to the west bank of the river and into Tampa Heights. It also could include a water taxi and improvements to make walking or biking from one side of the river safer and more enjoyable.

• Create livable neighborhoods in the center city, which could mean working to bring in a grocery store and other retail, adding sidewalks and bikeways and writing design standards that respect historic patterns of development.

• Strengthen links between downtown and nearby neighborhoods. For example, the plan suggests turning Tampa Street and Florida Avenue — now one-way streets dedicated mainly to moving commuters into and out of downtown quickly — into local, two-way streets with lower speed limits, on-street parking and more of a neighborhood feel.

• Make pedestrians and cyclists feel safe and welcome. This could mean creating a east-west "green spine" — a multipurpose trail that could run generally from the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, down Nuccio Parkway, through downtown, over the river, past the University of Tampa and out to West Tampa.

• Create urban patterns that support transit by guiding development to create the kind of density that supports the use of transit, by capitalizing on existing centers of growth like the Channel District and working to enhance east-west transit as a precursor to a future commuter rail line.

At a community open house Tuesday night, the plan got some good reviews.

"It does seem, even outside of this study, that the city's poised to take the next step," said Scott Miller, an urban designer who lives in Tampa but has not been involved in the InVision Tampa project. "This seems like great ground work for that to happen."

Buckhorn has described InVision Tampa as one part of a three-part strategy. The other two parts are coming from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, D.C., and the Tampa Housing Authority.

Over the past year, the institute has sent panels of experts to Tampa to look at development opportunities in downtown generally and along the river in particular.

More recently, the housing authority and city have teamed up to launch a detailed study of 140 acres west of the river. The study will cover an area — 80 percent of which is in government ownership — mostly north of Interstate 275, south of Columbus Drive and west from the river to Rome Avenue.

Earlier this month, the housing authority chose a private sector team led by St. Louis-based development firm McCormack Baron Salazar to help plan the demolition and redevelopment of the North Boulevard Homes and Mary Bethune public housing complexes in West Tampa. The team, which will be paid up to $350,000, also includes planners from AECOM.

Eventually, officials will draw on InVision Tampa, the Urban Land Institute's recommendations and the housing authority plan to create what Buckhorn says will be the most comprehensive approach ever to redeveloping Tampa's urban core.

Meanwhile, a second phase of the InVision Tampa project will focus on Nebraska Avenue from downtown Tampa to Hillsborough Avenue, with an emphasis on the corridor's possibility for rail transit. The city will hold a series of small group discussions next month to help define the issues.

"This is the beginning, not the end," Buckhorn said.