How do you transform a downtown like Tampa's that has such little history?

Published Sep. 23, 2016

It's one thing to decide which building goes where when mapping out a new $3 billion district for downtown Tampa. But it's another challenge entirely to create a sense of place and identity that has been lacking in downtown Tampa for decades when there isn't much history in that part of town.

That's the problem facing James Nozar, the man in charge of Strategic Property Partners' plan to build a new 53-acre urban core for Tampa from the ground up. As the chief executive of SPP, the real estate firm owned by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, he's working with 17 architects, planners and designers to create a unifying theme across the entire district as they build it block by block.

"There's not a neighborhood or great historic presence to look back to. That's our biggest challenge," Nozar said about the greater downtown Tampa area. "So we've had to use the unique Tampa climate to influence the sense of place we're trying to create."

SPP officials have worked with the Tampa History Center to delve into downtown's background, but have struggled to find any anecdotes from years past that could fit with the new development plans.

"We tore everything down," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa History Center. "We had a very vibrant downtown. It didn't have the big historic skyscrapers like in bigger cities, but we had a nice collection of quality buildings. Over the years, most of those buildings have been demolished. What we're left with is a small scattering of historic properties that are too far away from one another to get a cohesive idea of what a historic downtown would look like."

Most of downtown Tampa's urban development came online in the 1980s and 1990s, far later than most big metropolitan areas in the rest of the country.

"Historically, we've seen development come in waves. Like in '81 and again in '88," said Bob McDonaugh, the administrator of economic opportunity with the city of Tampa. "All of the new development under way is the most sustained activity we've ever seen. It's unusual."

Back in the '80s, office buildings in downtown Tampa were home to several large companies, like Tampa Electric and GTE Financial. That's no longer the case, but it is something SPP hopes to change. A proposed office building at S Morgan Street and Channelside Drive will offer 100,000- to 400,000-square-foot plans. Nozar said that he and his team have talked to several employers that are interested in expanding into an office in downtown Tampa.

The next wave of development came in the mid '90s, when Amalie Arena, formerly known as the Ice Palace, was built.

"There was a push in the '90s to redevelop the urban core, and using a sports stadium was a catalyst for Tampa," Kite-Powell said. "It brought new hotels to downtown and helped draw people back to the city."

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Early renderings and descriptions voiced by the downtown project's champion, Jeff Vinik, seem to suggest that developers are taking a page of out the book of "new urbanism," a design movement that focuses on walkable streetscapes and gathering places to inspire a sense of community. Vinik hired a city planner and acclaimed "new urbanism" advocate, Jeff Speck, early on in the design stage of the project to help create a framework for a pedestrian-friendly city full of new park spaces, bike lanes, rooftop bars and restaurants.

Now it's Nozar's job to make it all feel like Tampa.

Nozar joined SPP in April and left a high-profile commercial real estate job with the JBG Cos. in Washington, D.C., to do so. He has never worked on a real estate development this big. But he has built retail projects that have transformed communities before. In essence, that's what he's tasked with doing in Tampa.

Nozar was known for taking on projects in tired or underdeveloped neighborhoods around Washington and reviving them. Many of those projects included rehabbing old buildings and staying true to the history in those neighborhoods.

One way to do that in Tampa is to focus on the access to the waterfront, Nozar said. So SPP officials are creating multiple park spaces that line the water. And if approved by the Port Tampa Bay board of directors, the company will extend the Tampa Riverwalk all the way to where Channelside Bay Plaza stands now.

"Tampa does have a sense of history and it does have a lot of architectural reference points that we plan to build upon. But nothing exists today in the scale we are planning — on the 50-plus-acre urban scale that we are undertaking," added Ali Glisson, spokeswoman for SPP. "The land we own hasn't ever had significant development on it because it was part of a working waterfront. That's both a challenge and an opportunity for us moving forward — shaping a development that speaks to this community with the understanding that it's also unique in the market."

Trying to create an authentic sense of place in Tampa Bay is troublesome for just about any developer or designer, said Tim Clemmons, principal with St. Petersburg-based Mesh Architecture. Clemmons is the architect behind the Heights development just north of downtown Tampa, which will transform the historic Armature Works building, which was formerly a TECO trolly barn, into a food hall when it opens next year.

"We don't have a lot, either. We're trying to create a place that has a history with only one building, and not a whole lot of other clues," Clemmons said. "Trying to create something that's viable at the street level is absolutely the right focus."

But Clemmons said not every new development needs a tie to history in order to be a gathering place for people in the community.

"You can create modern buildings that become social places. We don't have to live in the past, and I don't think that's what Mr. Vinik's team is trying to do," he said. "You have to go back to the beginning principles and try to plan around this climate. So something that is sensible for when it rains a lot and when it's hot a lot, but is still walkable and enjoyable."

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.