Few civic projects offer to bring new energy to Tampa's downtown-area neighborhoods like the city's plan to replace the North Boulevard Homes and Mary Bethune public housing complexes. These monuments to blight are aging symbols of all that's wrong with warehousing poor people in dehumanizing conditions. The city has a chance to provide thousands of residents a safer, healthier and dignified living environment. And it could rebuild a riverfront community in the process.
The city is working with the Tampa Housing Authority to solicit development proposals to remake 120 acres in West Tampa, north of downtown and west of the Hillsborough River. The goal is to find a developer to plan and oversee the rebuilding of the entire tract, which includes the two public housing complexes, Riverfront Park, a city truck yard and four public schools.
These prewar apartments are deplorable, and they need to go. The authority would replace the 821 units with an equal or greater number of modern apartments, which would be energy-efficient, and part of a larger, mixed-use and mixed-income community. Current residents would have the right to return. The city expects the new housing would attract new businesses to the rundown commercial strip of Main Street.
The city and the authority deserve credit for aiming big. With 80 percent of the land in the study area government-owned, this plan offers a blank canvas for the city to remake one of the most promising chunks of downtown-area real estate. The 120 acres is high ground overlooking the riverfront and into downtown. Residents can walk their children to school, are five minutes from downtown and are close to the interstates, Tampa International Airport and the major attractions. Riverfront Park is the largest open space on the downtown waterfront. The plan also dovetails nicely with the larger redevelopment goals that the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce unveiled this month for the 3,400 acres of business and residential property in the surrounding areas.
The authority expects to select a developer next month, and then move ahead on a master plan and address design details. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has sent the right signals by promising that the city will remain engaged. The residents need to have input, and the chamber can keep the excitement going by ensuring that this project is not merely a remake of public housing but a broad-based redevelopment that brings in new commercial and mass transit opportunities. This project is in the early stage, and it still lacks critical details. But this is a serious, thoughtful effort that has the potential to change lives and the city's economics for the better.