Thursday was a turning point in Tampa's evolution into an urban center where all sorts of residents can live and work. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city $38 million to remake a vast wasteland on the northern edge of downtown that housed the former Central Park Village public housing project. The city will use the money to build an entire community of apartments, offices and stores at the site of what could be a stop for a new high-speed passenger rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Pinellas and Pasco counties received tens of millions of dollars in federal aid for housing assistance, too. It was a good day that will bring immediate relief and transform the region for the better.
Tampa seemed snakebit in its efforts over the past decade to rebuild Central Park. Residents were kicked out, and the 500-unit public housing complex was demolished a year ago. But redevelopment stalled over a turf battle between the city and Hillsborough County, a Florida Supreme Court ruling that complicated financing and, later, the collapse in the housing market.
Some $28 million in federal stimulus money will finance the infrastructure needed for Bank of America, the city's private-sector partner, to construct the first of five buildings that will include 1,500 subsidized and market-rate housing units and more than a quarter-million square feet of office and retail space. HUD also awarded the city another $10 million to redevelop foreclosed properties nearby, giving the city additional leverage to shape a busy gateway into downtown.
The 28-acre Central Park site is vacant, surrounded by a fence. By redeveloping it, the city would fill in the missing link between downtown Tampa and Ybor City. The Channel District and Ybor, where taxpayers have invested in tourism, entertainment and parking facilities, would have a new market of thousands of full-time residents. As importantly, the development will allow the city to honor its pledge to bring former Central Park residents home.
Thursday's announcement, though, means much more than a cluster of new buildings. The so-called Encore project sits at the Tampa end of a proposed high-speed rail line to Orlando that Florida hopes the federal government will fund; a decision is expected within weeks. Thursday's award makes a stronger case for high-speed rail and it bolsters the argument for Hillsborough to build light rail. The awards also are an acknowledgement of the sustained, united effort among various players to build a quality, master-planned development at Central Park. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and the Tampa Housing Authority — especially Jerome Ryans and Robert Shimberg — did the public a great service. By keeping this project alive, it could now become a catalyst to renew the eastern side of the city.
But Thursday was a good day across the region. Pasco and Pinellas counties received $50 million in HUD grants to further deal with the foreclosure crisis in their communities. The money will go for second mortgages and rehabilitation of blighted or vacant housing. All told, Florida received $348 million of the $2 billion HUD distributed in this latest round. For a state coping with the highest unemployment numbers in decades and record home foreclosures, this is desperately needed stimulus money that will bring jobs and improve communities.