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Study: Downtown residents will help Tampa’s urban core rebound from pandemic

A planner behind Water Street Tampa says downtown’s rising population is a reason the city should be optimistic.

The good news: Tampa is an “emerging” downtown, one with a diverse and rising residential population and “lots of potential” for retail and small-business growth.

The bad news: This all comes from a study conducted before the coronavirus pandemic.

But the things downtown Tampa has going for it do bode fairly well for its post-pandemic growth, renowned urban planner David Dixon said Thursday at a virtual presentation for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

“COVID is changing a lot,” said Dixon, a vice president at planning group Stantec, which supported the third annual International Downtown Association study. “It’s had a devastating impact on retail. It has changed much about what is happening in offices, in places that provide employment.”

But Tampa’s residential core, Dixon said, will help it sustain its growth in ways other cities can’t.

“It is where higher-income households are growing fastest, and frankly, it is where educated 25-to-35-year-old educated millennials are moving at the fastest pace,” he said. “This is probably one of the best indicators to where downtown’s economy is going and its ability to lead the Tampa Bay region’s income.”

Dixon has a lead role in planning Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion downtown development led by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, a private wealth fund owned by Bill Gates.

Water Street, he said, is counting on those younger residents to buoy a downtown retail market that has dropped by 67 percent since 2000.

“You can have all the fun, cool (things to do), but if you don’t have people living there, there aren’t going to be people walking around,” he said. “You’re not going to have vitality. This is what Water Street is planning for, and I think we’ll honestly achieve, because so much of this development will actually be downtown housing.”

The study examined more than 30 cities in terms of livability, inclusivity and economic activity; this was the first year Tampa was included. The study placed the city’s downtown in an “emerging” category — as opposed to “established” or “growing” — alongside downtowns of cities like Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tuscon, Ariz. and Durham, N.C.

According to the study, jobs in downtown Tampa have fallen 14 percent since 2002 — but they still represent 21 percent of the city’s total job count, with creative and knowledge industry jobs both on the rise.

The area, though, has a higher rate of residence than other “emerging” downtowns, with a population that’s grown 36 percent since 2000. Notably, that population is more diverse than in other “islands of white privilege” that have popped up in renovated cities across the country.

“In most downtowns, the racial mix is frankly much whiter — particularly, growth in employment is much whiter, and certainly in jobs, downtown growth tends to be much whiter compared to the rest of the city,” Dixon said. “Downtown Tampa is maintaining, as it grows, much more of an equity balance.”

Related: Tampa Bay study shows deep inequities between Black, white residents

Dixon said that over the next two decades, the real estate market will be driven largely by college-educated singles and couples who may work work more from home, but who will want to be a walkable distance from amenities like restaurants and things to do in order to feel like they’re part of a community.

“The future of downtowns, I think, is much more about the folks who live there and work there — who work there on their own, or work in offices,” he said. “For every new 1,000 houses within a 5-minute walk, you can bring a block of Main Street to life. It is that block of Main Street that ultimately is the goal.”

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