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From barren to buzzworthy: Tampa and St. Pete’s downtown makeovers

How the rise of our cities happened in the past 10 years.

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Decade Defined By,” a series that examines how Tampa Bay has changed in the past decade. We will publish one story a day until Dec. 31. Read the whole package here.

Ten years ago, still in the grip of the Great Recession, no one would have pegged downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg as buzzworthy.

Tampa’s skyscrapers were mostly in place, built largely in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it wasn’t until the latest leg of the waterside Riverwalk opened in 2015 that the area took off. The 2.4 mile path realigned Tampa’s center toward the Hillsborough River and green spaces like Curtis Hixon Park, WaterWorks Park and Richard Gonzmart’s restaurant, Ulele.

In 2018, the opening of the revamped 25-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park across the river to the west provided a capstone to that vision.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg’s once-moribund downtown underwent a stunning transformation led by new luxury residential towers along the city’s waterfront including Ovation and Signature Place, which opened in 2009. Within a decade, they were joined by Bliss and St. Petersburg One, a spruced-up Bayfront Towers and a raft of luxury apartment buildings as high-priced living rolled west from the water all the way to the doorstep of Tropicana Field.

Aerials of various construction sites in St. Petersburg photographed in 2013. [ Times (2013) ]

The demographics of both downtowns radically transformed, bringing thousands of new residents. Each developed a different vibe: St. Pete celebrates it local, artsy feel while Tampa strives for the big-city atmosphere.

New people meant places to eat, drink and shop. St. Pete’s Central Avenue has become a national success story of local retail stretching nearly all the way to 34th Street. Tampa’s downtown has been bolstered by Sparkman Wharf and Armature Works, entertainment and event spaces anchored by food halls, bookending the Riverwalk.

The expanded footprints promise to grow even larger with dozens of residential projects announced in both urban cores, highlighted by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s $3 billion Water Street, a massive mixed-use development at downtown’s southern edge.

And a symbolic icon of the bay area’s urban emergence opens next year when St. Pete unveils its new Pier, the centerpiece of a 26-acre Pier District that will re-imagine the city’s waterfront drawing card.

A rendering of the pier education center at the new St. Pete Pier. [ Photo courtesy of City of St. Petersburg ]

Five key turning points for downtowns, 2010-2019

1. Tampa’s Riverwalk

When it opened in 2015, former mayor Bob Buckhorn predicted it would reorient downtown to the water. It largely has.

2. St. Pete’s downtown residential explosion

The high-rises along the waterfront started more than a decade ago, but the intensity of development has only picked up its pace as the city remakes itself block by block, especially heading west toward Tropicana Field.

3. Tampa’s urban green spaces — Curtis Hixon, Waterworks and Julian B. Lane parks

Another key piece in Tampa’s resurgence: the creation of riverside parks that draw people as a destination.

People visit the 5th annual Tampa Riverfest in May 2019 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times (2019) ]

4. Tampa’s Water Street development

It’s still a few years off from completion, but Water Street could be the final link connecting Channelside to the rest of downtown and bringing thousands of jobs and residents to what used to be mostly faded warehouses and parking lots.

A view from high above Harbour Island looking north towards the Selmon Expressway as construction continues on the 50 acres of the Water Street project downtown in Tampa on May 24, 2019. [ Times (2019) ]

5. St. Pete Pier

The fate of the iconic structure has been a political football since at least 2013. After many subsequent battles and plenty of griping, the new Pier looks nearly ready. Will it be the regional destination that Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration hopes for?