The look and economics of Tampa's urban core enter a new era this month, as the Tampa Housing Authority begins to tear down North Boulevard Homes, the first phase of replacing an aged public housing project with an entirely new urban setting of apartments, homes, shops, parks and restaurants. The buildout will take years, and the city still has to settle many details that will shape the character of this community. But this effort could reverse nearly a half-century of blight, and it promises to create a more affordable environment for those eager to experience downtown living.
The shuttered complex will be demolished in two phases, part of a broader effort by the city to remake 120 acres on the west side of the Hillsborough River. The cinder block, World War II-era public housing project fronts the commercial core of the West River district. Officials expect to convert this area into a walkable neighborhood of shaded streets, apartments, restaurants and shops sloping toward the river and new public parks. Already the city is remaking Riverfront Park, several blocks to the east, which will serve as West River's central outdoor space.
The elements of West River are coming together in a timely and orderly way as the urban market for housing and retail in Tampa remains strong. Aside from the remake of Riverfront Park and the clearing of North Boulevard Homes, the city has vacated its 12-acre truck yard to the north, presenting an opportunity for mid-rise apartments on a bluff overlooking the river. Virtually the entire area in the West River footprint is publicly owned. That creates great leeway to redevelop the area with a common vision and quality that can be missing when working piecemeal with many different property owners.
Its size, proximity to downtown and the riverfront and potential for much-needed affordable housing make West River a desirable public project. The city and housing authority will need to ensure this area serves a mix of incomes and has a distinct character. Its decent tree canopy is a good backdrop for a mixed-use commercial core. Its clean street grids make it easy to serve the area with robust mass transit, which is key to making housing affordable by giving residents an opportunity to forgo a car. The development in Tampa Heights, directly across the river, also adds to the critical mass of new housing, shopping and parks in the area. The city is building value on the north end of downtown for residents and businesses alike, and bridging the gap between the city center and established neighborhoods to the north.
West River is one of the most ambitious remakes in Tampa's history, and challenges remain. President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating a range of transit and development grants that Tampa and other cities have used to rebuild their downtown cores. The market still will rely in part on urban pioneers willing to take a chance. And creating the full development will take years; property owners will need to have confidence and a commitment to the long term. Whoever succeeds Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn when his term expires in 2019 will need to follow through in concert with other local agencies to meet the demands for schools, policing and other essentials. But West River has great promise, and it should be a city priority. It has all the elements of a live-work-play environment on a grand scale.