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University Mall's 'Uptown District' nabs USF lab as first research tenant

TAMPA —Developers said last year that they planned to transform University Mall from a retail relic into a research village.

Now, the future "Uptown District" has named its first research tenant: the University of South Florida's Institute of Applied Engineering. The research and technology center headquarters are expected to open in a new "tech loft" by September, said Chris Bowen, project manager for developer RD Management. It will occupy about 4,000 square feet, according to the development company.

"We're excited to be part of Uptown," said Robert Bishop, the head of the institute and the dean of USF's College of Engineering. "And hopefully someday as the vision of Uptown grows, we can remain a part of it as we grow."

The new center is still in its early stages. The office will be its first physical space.

Bishop said researchers working with the institute will focus on applied engineering, aiming to help the U.S. Department of Defense and the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base solve problems in fields such as autonomous machinery, data analysis and cyber security.

RD Management's vision of the Uptown District includes converting vacant department stores into offices catering to the technology and medical fields, especially those tied to the nearby USF campus. Bowen has said Uptown still will rely heavily on retail, but will act more as a city center than a traditional mall.

Already, a corridor that connected a former JCPenney to the main artery of the mall has been demolished to make way for a pedestrian street. It was the first step toward turning the aging complex into a "mixed-used urban neighborhood," Bowen said.

RD Management bought the 100-acre property in 2014 for $29.5 million.

[Read more about the future of University Mall as 'Uptown']

The entire tech loft will reside in a 30,000-square-foot former retail wing and common area on the second floor of the mall, adjacent to the existing food court. It will be designed to support several tech-focused tenants, according to RD Management. The developers also have plans to modernize the nearby food court into a modern food hall.

The loft will include a 250-seat lecture hall and event center as well as an entryway to the existing Studio Movie Grill restaurant and cinema.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.