Despite a sluggish economy, an unwieldy bureaucracy at City Hall and the voters' rejection of rail, Tampa has a chance to remake the older neighborhoods in and around downtown. That was the message Friday to nearly 200 city officials, developers and business leaders who gathered at the Tampa Convention Center to hear representatives from the Urban Land Institute outline the city's strengths and weaknesses. The session marked the launch of a long-range development plan the institute is crafting for a sweeping area surrounding downtown, from West Tampa and Tampa Heights to Ybor City and the Channel District.
This urban redesign effort is different from previous plans in two major ways. First, it is the most ambitious in city history. Planners are looking to remake a half-dozen neighborhoods more than a mile from downtown in any direction. They include some of Tampa's oldest, such as West Tampa, and newer neighborhoods, such as the condo-heavy Channel District. And the city has never reached out to professionals like the Urban Land Institute's staff for a fresh, outside perspective on Tampa's potential. That's what makes this process more than an academic exercise. There already is confidence in a planning effort that could shape Tampa's growth for decades.
Consultants for the institute spent last week in Tampa talking with civic leaders, and Friday's meeting was a chance for them to share their first impressions. While a redevelopment plan is months away, the feedback already has helped underscore how much the city can bring to the table. Much of the land in the redevelopment areas is vacant or publicly owned. That gives the city a fairly blank canvas to redesign entire neighborhoods. The close proximity of the neighborhoods and their straight layouts make it easy and affordable to connect them with circulator bus service. And the meandering northward stretch of the Hillsborough River provides the backdrop to attract new residents, restaurants and shops.
The goal here is to make these neighborhoods more exciting and economically vibrant, to draw more people into the urban center and to expand Tampa's appeal as a place to live, work and play. The city has a lot of work to do. But the session showed that redevelopment is not all pie in the sky. Mayor Bob Buckhorn can do several things to get the ball rolling. Why not introduce Tampa Heights by hosting Saturday markets along its riverfront? What about looking at city codes for ways to make urban developments more practical and affordable? There will be plenty of additional details to address. But as the institute made clear Friday, the secret here is follow-through. Buckhorn should look at deputizing a point person to oversee this project full time. That would free him for the larger job of selling the city — and the City Hall bureaucracy — on a common vision for the urban core. He has no more important an agenda in his first term.