Tampa Bay's architects remain bullish on local economy

Most of the architects said demand for their services would grow this year.
Chairs and umbrellas can be seen at the new Sparkman Wharf, formerly Channelside Bay Plaza, in Tampa. BDG Architects designed the complex
Chairs and umbrellas can be seen at the new Sparkman Wharf, formerly Channelside Bay Plaza, in Tampa. BDG Architects designed the complex
Published Feb. 14, 2019

Architects are economic harbingers, at least when it comes to development. They get hired early in the building cycle. They plan and design, draw and redraw until their clients are satisfied. Only then will the concrete get poured and the hammers start swinging.

When architects are busy, more construction is likely on the way. And right now, Tampa Bay's architects are bullish.

In a recent survey, 70 percent said demand for their services would grow this year. Only 14 percent thought it would drop.

Nearly 9 out of every 10 said the local development opportunities would be good or excellent. The managers and owners of the architectural firms thought they would add employees this year as well.

Tampa Electric rents sheep to manage vegetation around solar arrays. "I've been an architect here for 38 years, and I've never been more excited than I am right now with this community and where we are at," said Mickey Jacob, principal of the Design Studio at BDG Architects in Tampa. "The possibilities we have to transform this city are just amazing."

Why so optimistic?

Jacob sees growth in every building sector from commercial to condos and schools to historic preservation. He was also buoyed by the success of All for Transportation, the citizen-based initiative that raised Hillsborough County's sales tax by 1 percentage point. The increase is expected to add about $300 million a year for roads and transit.

"It's a good indicator of not just the business community, but the community in general, being interested in investing in our area," said Jacob, whose firm designed the Grand Central at Kennedy condos and Sparkman Wharf, a focal point of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa development near Amalie Arena.

The Tampa Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects asked its 650 members to fill out the online survey. The 120 who responded ranked health care, housing and transportation as the sectors most in demand this year.

The hottest trend, they said, was developing sustainable and resilient designs that reduce environmental impacts and maximize the health and comfort of the occupants.

By far the biggest development-related challenge, according to respondents, was continuing to tackle the area's transportation woes. Finding ways to build more affordable housing and addressing rising costs and permitting issues also made the list.

Longtime architect and St. Pete Beach city commissioner Ward Friszolowski said he feels good about this year and next due to pent-up demand.

School districts and local governments did a lot less building coming out of the Great Recession. Now they are playing catch up, said Friszolowski, president of Harvard Jolly Architecture, the team behind the new St. Petersburg Police headquarters, the Visual Arts building at Eckerd College and the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg.

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One of the challenges will be rising costs, he said. Architects often have to budget for a project a year or more before construction starts.

"It's like looking at a crystal ball for the next year," he said.

The local optimism stands out when contrasted with billing data compiled by the American Institute of Architects. The institute's monthly index showed that year-over-year billing in its South region fell in October, leveled off in November, and fell again in December.

The index, which doesn't break out cities or states, suggests a regional slowdown in construction. But Tampa Bay's growing population might help explain the confident local outlook. More people means more housing, office space and other projects that keep architects busy.

The caveat, of course, is that the pros who answered the survey are making predictions. The future can be fickle. For now, the U.S. economy is expected to chug along, slower than last year but still healthy enough. But what comes after that?

History tells us that the already long expansion can't last forever. A recession will come. Maybe it's next year, as many experts predict. Maybe it's 2021.

Lots of projects conceived and designed in 2005 and 2006 withered as the Great Depression took hold. And it doesn't take such a drastic downturn for construction to slow. Nearly every veteran architect can tell a story about the one that got away. The innovative design scuttled by rising interest rates. The transformative project undermined by lack of financing.

One difference from before the last downturn: Developers are doing more research to ensure projects make sense, Jacob said.

"There's a lot more stability than 10 or 12 years ago," he said, "and a lot less speculation."

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

The architectural forecast for 2019

A sampling of results from the survey of more than 100 local architects.

Tampa Bay's development-related economy in 2019 will be:

Excellent 27 percent

Good 60 percent

Fair 13 percent

Poor 1 percent

Very poor 0 percent

What are Tampa Bay's top development-related issues in 2019?

Transportation 44 percent

Affordable housing 15 percent

Rising costs of development 13 percent

Permitting issues 11 percent

Lack of workforce 10 percent

Impact of growth 7 percent

There is a clear vision for Tampa Bay's growth in 2019.

Strongly agree 5 percent

Agree 47 percent

Disagree 41 percent

Strongly disagree 7 percent