Tampa's plan to redevelop the downtown-area neighborhood west of the Hillsborough River is exciting and long overdue. Over the next 10 years, a crumbling public housing project and vast areas of urban decay could become an integrated, thriving community of new homes, shops and parks. This is the city's most ambitious development project in decades — and it will take finesse and follow through to make it work.
The plan unveiled last month seeks to transform the so-called West River area, a pie-shaped neighborhood on the west bank of the river that stands between downtown and West Tampa. The city and the Tampa Housing Authority would demolish North Boulevard Homes, a World War II-era public housing complex, and rebuild the area with new apartments, shops, parks and street designs to make it livelier, safer and more appealing.
The housing authority would replace its 820 units of family and senior housing with more than 1,600 new apartments and town homes. Residents forced to leave during the interim would have the right to return. With about half the units offered at market rates, the authority hopes to create a blended community — one whose stronger purchasing power will support nearby shops and businesses.
The concept is not new, but Tampa's plan is particularly strong. With 90 percent of the area's 120 acres publicly owned, the city doesn't need to buy more property and will have a blank canvas to work with after North Boulevard Homes is gone. The area's utilities are adequate, and its proximity to downtown is a major selling point. Roughly half the area borders on the water, which makes for prime market space. And with property values in the area at rock bottom, the city has a chance to cash in by attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment.
The trick will be balancing economic opportunity with the city's obligation to give low-income residents already there a chance to share in the revival. The city should expand the residential portion, both by adding some density to the housing designs and working with the Hillsborough County School District to free up space by consolidating facilities at the local schools. The county bus agency also should step up with a mass transit plan to reduce the waste of space for parking.
This project could improve lives, incomes and the look and feel of the West River area. It also has the potential to transform the city's economics by turning a money pit into an economic engine that expands the reach of downtown into the historic neighborhoods. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the housing authority should continue working on a plan that has extraordinary promise.