TAMPA — Since he came to town four years ago, people have on occasion called Christopher Bowen crazy. Though he says these days that’s happening less.
The idea — in the works by RD Management with Bowen as chief development strategist — is to take the old 1970s University Mall next to the University of South Florida and turn it into something that defies a one-sentence description.
RITHM@Uptown — RITHM as in research, innovation, technology, habitat and medicine — is envisioned as a multi-story urban neighborhood development, a live-work-play “innovation village.” Planners see a walkable, bikable community, a natural fit with the college and medical facilities nearby.
Uptown is their name for the surrounding University Area, a community that has had its challenges. An innovation corridor would stretch along Fowler Avenue from USF to Interstate 275.
The old mall is now a work in progress. JC Penney and Sears have been demolished and Macy’s goes soon. Newer enterprises including a robotics lab and virtual production studio share space with the remaining mall stores and food court.
“People think the mall’s dead — the mall had over 3 1/2 million visits in 2021,” said Bowen, 62, who spent much of his career as a medical real estate developer. “That wasn’t because people were buying a bunch of stuff — people were coming to start businesses, to become an entrepreneur, to look at cool stuff that was going on, to have a bite to eat and, yes, to buy some things.”
A conversation with Bowen about big plans for an old mall.
How did things get going on this project?
Everything we wanted to do would not work unless we bought every inch of the mall property. At that time it was carved up, with some very serious players. A lot of them — Sears, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Burlington — the owners of those parcels were pretty adamant that it would be years before we ... would acquire them.
A lot of people thought we bought the whole mall in 2014. What we did is buy the first piece that was available. It was very, very risky. We had to have the whole 113 acres. There was no guarantee we would get it all. We jumped with both feet.
None of us thought it would take seven years. But the fact that it did gave us a chance to know people and understand what’s going on.
Explain what you envision for the mall and surrounding area.
Everyone agreed there had really never been any vision (for a science, technology and medical core) that had been brewing and bubbling and developing since the 1950s ... no vision or plan for what was around it. And everyone agreed that what was was bubbling was pretty incredible. We had a top public research university, one of the largest universities in Florida, in our neighborhood. Tech was layering in.
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I worked with a lot of university health systems around the country. I noticed their research parks are fairly dead. They were all just work. When I talked to some of the deans they’d say there’s no place to walk across the street and grab a beer and talk, to connect the dots of life and work. RITHM is essentially a research park that you live and play in.
A lot of people ask me, where’s another RITHM? Go to the area around Harvard and MIT … to Austin. That’s what I want to recreate for RITHM, these urban creative communities that are heavily infused with sciences, the arts, technology and also everything medical.
What are the biggest obstacles you see?
It’s a certain perception of the mall building, the property and the neighborhood. Perceptions are very powerful and they’re very difficult to replace. Even if you’re replacing it with reality
Give me a sampling of what’s in the mall building now.
It’s an incubator. People come in and they’re welcome.
We’ve got the AMRoC lab, a community robotics lab. You can make robots, you can make drones. And it’s accessible to anyone. We have (headquarters for) Soaring City Innovation Partnership (a non-profit that offers services and resources to entrepreneurs, artists, and community builders.) We have Vu Technologies, the third-largest extended-reality studio in the world.
We have WellBuilt Bikes, a local organization that is training people (to repair bikes). If you want a bike, you work and learn on bikes for so many hours and then you receive a bike. We love that. Talk about a model that’s sustainable.
We have clothing shops — some are national brands — still. We have Bath & Body Works. I just bought a fresh-cut lilac candle.
The neighborhood is often called the University area. It’s also in the past been derisively referred to as Suitcase City because of its perceived transient nature.
We have up to 34 languages spoken in our neighborhood. It’s an international section of the city.
I’ve had an opportunity to speak to people all around us and see the neighborhood. I see the really good stuff. I see some really bad stuff.
I’m a developer that has developed in Baltimore, Chicago, Miami. What Tampa thinks is troubling and blight - come to Baltimore, Chicago, L.A., we’ll show you some stuff (if) you want to see some challenges.
I don’t have the answers, but this doesn’t have to be like this.
You won’t say Suitcase City.
No. I’ve told people not to say that.
The label of the day when I came in was University area, emphasis on area, which meant you’re not quite sure. I said that’s not an identity that works. That’s where (the name) Uptown came from
Has Uptown caught on yet?
It’s unbelievable. We started hearing it on the nightly news: Uptown district, Uptown community. The community started putting it on things: The Uptown Music Festival ... most important, when I meet with people living in the community, they call it Uptown.
We’re at the very top reaches of the city overlooking Ybor and Water Street and the financial and governmental center. I wanted to be pulled into downtown rather than pushed away. I just felt that Uptown represented our soul.
What will it look like?
It’ll look a lot like some of the better planned city neighborhoods - downtown St. Petersburg, parts of downtown Tampa, Hyde Park.
In that 18 blocks you’ll see some giant research projects interspersed with this urban neighborhood that’s very walkable with all the restaurants and shops and apartments and offices. You’ll see a good disbursement of major labs, major data centers, tech centers.
No doubt you run into naysayers.
Absolutely. Less today than in January 2018 (when he moved here.) I got a lot of blank looks and stares and head shaking. I got some nasty comments, too ... “You’re crazy.” Also: “Why would you want to do that here?”
What’s the timetable?
So for the Fowler corridor, and that includes RITHM, we’re somewhere in the 10- to 15-year mark where the innovation corridor is fully embedded from I-275 to USF.
You relocated from Minnesota. How do you like it?
We love it. We live over near Fort DeSoto. That was the deal I cut with my wife Karen. It was like, “Okay I’ll move 1,500 miles away from my children and future grandchildren, but I have to be near the beach.”
What do you do for fun when you’re not trying to make RITHM happen?
I really like strolling the urban areas, looking at how they were designed, the architecture. I really love cities. I like to see what’s around the corner. Tampa Bay’s got a lot of great places to do that. A lot of surprises.