For all of the muscle of its jutting skyline, downtown Tampa is burdened with a higher percentage of vacant offices than almost anywhere in the region.
Thanks mostly to competition from the Westshore business district and office parks on Interstate 75, about 17 percent of the city center's top quality offices go begging.
So how's an enterprising developer to earn a buck in that surplus-laden market? If you're Bob Abberger, head of development at Trammell Crow Co., you start fresh a half-mile away in an area known as an entertainment district and cruise ship destination.
By 2010, Trammell wants to open Prime Meridian Center, 20 stories of green glass at Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive, across from the St. Pete Times Forum.
It's been 15 years since anyone stuck a new office tower in the ground in Tampa's central business district. And at 450,000 square feet, the tower would rank among the top 10 in size on both sides of the bay.
Abberger's $150-million project aims to avoid the faults of urban offices relative to their suburban cousins: poor accessibility, limited or expensive parking and tight floor plans.
Trammell Crow has nailed down an undeveloped 2 1/2-acre lot on Meridian Avenue, newly refurbished as a six-lane boulevard that Abberger dubs "the new Main Street" of Tampa.
For ease of access to the suburbs of central Pasco and southeast Hillsborough counties, the building would sit at the foot of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. A TECO Streetcar station is across the street.
"If you look at downtown they are for the most part the last generation of buildings," Abberger says. "We're offering all of the attributes of a suburban building and all the attributes of a central business district."
Trammell also is tapping into a growing disenchantment with the suburbs that's encouraging the redevelopment of peer cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham. The intent is to create mini-Manhattans that accommodate offices, retail, restaurants and condominiums in one compact core.
Channelside has enjoyed a head start. The onetime warehouse district that served the Port of Tampa is blossoming with dining, entertainment and hundreds of condominiums.
"In the long term it's going to be a great project. It's all about timing," said Tom Kennedy, a commercial real estate broker with rival Grubb & Ellis. "I think livable downtowns are very much the future."
Site selection consultant John Rhodes with Bradenton's Moran, Stahl & Boyer LLC notes that companies relocating to Tampa often seek out suburban office parks because that's where many of their mid-level employees want to live.
But what if many of your employees are 20- and 30-somethings turned off by kiddie soccer leagues and sticky commutes?
"Maybe this guy isn't crazy," Rhodes said of Abberger. "There's still a yearning for urban living. Regions are striving for more balanced growth between the suburbs and downtowns. It isn't one or the other. You need both."
Eschewing what he calls "skinny towers built over parking garages," Abberger envisions Prime Meridian as a wide building with nearly double the individual floor space of the competition. An adjacent freestanding garage would offer four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet, quadruple what you normally find downtown. Trammell hopes to draw most of its tenants from companies relocating to Tampa.
"This isn't seeking to cannibalize existing tenancies," Abberger said. "It's trying to bring a new employment base to the area."
The project is clearly Abberger's baby. When talking about the building he'll say "she's a big girl" and "she's virtually on the water." Trammell had scouted the site for years and seized the opportunity when a planned condo tower, O2 at Pinnacle Place, fell through. City rezoning approval is expected this fall, followed by 22 months of construction.
As a former chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100, Abberger has a reputation for getting projects off the ground.
For those who question the wisdom of plotting another office high-rise in the high-vacancy downtown market, Abberger points to the Marriott Waterside, the luxury hotel his company completed in 2000 despite a chorus of doubters. The 700-room hotel is the city's largest and made a mint for its developer.
"I've always been a contrarian," Abberger said. "I've never followed the herd, and it's always rewarded me."