TAMPA — Calling it a giant step forward, a game-changer for downtown and a vision to turn an eyesore into an icon, the City Council gave its initial approval Thursday night for a 36-story tower near the Riverwalk.
"I believe this bold step will be revered by future generations and will be an asset to downtown and an asset to the Riverwalk," council member Harry Cohen said of the Residences at the Riverwalk, planned for an acre about two blocks north of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Council members voted 5-2 to approve rezoning for the project and a plan to vacate parts of Cass and Tyler streets to help create the site. Voting no were members Yvonne Yolie Capin and Mary Mulhern, who said the tower would just be in the wrong spot.
A top priority for Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the project calls for 380 apartments, a 620-space parking garage and 10,000 square feet of first-floor shops and restaurants.
The vote came after more than three hours of discussion and testimony from more than two dozen residents, most in favor.
Thirtysomething supporters said the project would make downtown more appealing to young professionals. Business owners said opportunities to grow a city don't come along often. Green-lighting the project would fuel more projects, more density and more activity, they said, while rejecting it would send an ominous message.
But skeptics argued that the tower would be too close to the Hillsborough River and inconsistent with previous city plans for the area. They also fear it would dwarf neighboring cultural institutions — the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children's Museum.
"We don't want the density all over the place," Skypoint Condominium Association president Jeff Zampitella said, adding that past city plans favored higher density closer to Franklin Street. "If you're going to do this project, do it in an appropriate area."
But developer Phillip Smith told the council that the project would not only relieve traffic problems, but also energize the feel of the pedestrian experience of the cultural arts district.
"This is a missed opportunity right now that we have in the arts district, and we can fix it," he said.
As planned, the city would sell the land to the developers for $4 million, at least twice its appraised value.
Money from that sale would then be used to turn both Tyler and Cass streets from one-way streets to two-way streets where traffic moves at slower speeds.
Traffic that now goes west on Tyler to cross the Cass Street Bridge would be diverted to Cass. Tyler would expected to become more of a local street that serves the Straz Center and the tower.
A final council vote on the project is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 22. At that time, the city will return to the council with a roadway construction improvement agreement that spells out the developers' obligations in detail.
Thursday's vote marked a dramatic turnaround for the project.
In May, the council postponed a vote after supporters of the nearby John F. Germany Library and Straz Center president Judith Lisi raised concerns.
Since then, developers have offered to:
• Delay construction until May to avoid disrupting the Straz Center's critically important Broadway series.
• Keep an elevated pedestrian bridge from the William F. Poe Parking Garage to the library and the Straz Center.
• Provide business interruption insurance in case construction does hurt the Straz Center.
"I think this is a better project as a result of the time that we took to get it right," Buckhorn said before the vote.
In other action, the council also gave final approval to rezoning for SkyHouse Channelside, which, at 275 feet, is expected to be one of the tallest buildings in the Channel District.
The 320-apartment tower is proposed for 1.5 acres east of 11th Street between Washington and Whiting streets. Plans call for 6,500 square feet for stores and a six-story parking garage with 567 spaces.
The Novare Group of Atlanta, which developed the Element and Skypoint high-rises, plans to start construction in mid-September. The project is expected to take a year or less.