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Vinik's vision for downtown Tampa in search of a name

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is seeking ideas from the public.
Published Jan. 22, 2015

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik is poised to remake downtown.

He has a vision. He has a plan. He has the money.

What he doesn't have is a name for the project.

That's kind of a problem.

"Neighborhoods need names," said Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa City Council member and urban planner.

Vinik is expected to rename the area with a little crowdsourcing help from the public. He's taking suggestions for the project via his website, tampawaterfront2020.com.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning owner settles on a name, he'll actually be naming the area for the first time. That part of downtown — a mosaic of barren lots and broken streets — has never had an identity.

"It has been pretty neglected over the years," said Rodney Kite-Powell, historian and curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. "It really doesn't have a name and it didn't really need a name.

"You don't name a part of town you don't go to."

• • •

Vinik owns the lease to Amalie Arena, and owns the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina and Channelside Bay Plaza outright.

Those existing pieces, along with a new University of South Florida medical school, will all be incorporated into a $1 billion development that will take shape in the coming decade.

The heart of that project are the 20-plus barren acres between Morgan Street on the east and Meridian Avenue on the west. The northern border is the flour mill on Finley Street and the southern border is Channelside Drive.

But until Vinik came along — he bought the Lightning and the arena lease in 2010 — the area hasn't had its own name or identity in the past 130 or so years.

Once, it was part of Fort Brooke, the 1800s military installation that overlooked what would become modern downtown. Now those barren acres are the final vestiges of downtown's industrial past, along with a 77-year-old flour mill that isn't going anywhere any time soon.

That area has long and stubbornly resisted the progress that has overtaken the rest of downtown Tampa.

"You know how people use that expression 'on the wrong side of the tracks'?" Saul-Sena said. "Well, this is that area."

The problem with not having a name is that empty area has been mistaken for areas that do have names.

"It is not the Channel District," said Henry Lewis, a district pioneer and longtime resident. "Everyone calls it the Channel District. They're wrong."

The Channel District is an urban mix of condos and businesses between Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive. Lewis is so meticulous about his neighborhood that he insisted that city maps placing the Florida Aquarium and Channelside Bay Plaza within his district are wrong.

Vinik's properties are all west of Meridian Avenue. Lewis said Channel District residents don't like it when their neighborhood is mistaken for what is seen as the blight next door.

Others have referred to the area as "Channelside," after Channelside Bay Plaza itself. The main road in that area is also called Channelside Drive, and the name has been adopted around the neighborhood. There are places like the Towers of Channelside, Channelside Lofts and Channelside Academy of Math and Science.

But for some, the name Channelside Bay Plaza also conjures up its convoluted financial and legal history. Vinik's team has vowed to turn the complex around but has not committed to keeping the Channelside name.

"(Channelside) kind of has bad connotations," said Florida Aquarium president Thomas Stork, "because it has not worked."

Technically, Vinik's properties are in the Central Business District. But so is most of downtown, a vast area stretching from the waterfront north to Interstate 275.

But that name doesn't seem right, either. It's too long, too broad — and too boring.

"This will be a live, work and play environment, different from the Central Business District," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "and different from the Channel District, and different from Ybor City and Tampa Heights.

"It will be an aggregation of all those things that make the city unique and different."

• • •

While Team Vinik hasn't picked a name yet, it has started calling the area the "waterfront district." Don't be surprised if the permanent name ends with "district."

The Tampa Bay Times has also had trouble distinguishing Vinik's properties from the Channel District in the past. The newspaper tried calling the area "Vinikville." Vinik, however, didn't go for it.

"I don't enjoy that," he told the Times last month.

So what should the new development be called?

The Times found some good suggestions.

Saul-Sena wants to call it the "Water District," after Old Water Street.

Water Street is a historic road whose name disappeared when the arena was built in 1996. When the Tampa Bay History Center opened nearby in 2009, Kite-Powell said the center requested that Water Street be brought back. It was resurrected as Old Water Street.

Old Water Street is also a key part of the Vinik plan. The road will be extended north past Channelside Drive, and USF's new medical school will be built near it. Under the Vinik plan, it could become a pedestrian thoroughfare.

"I think it would be a memorable name," Saul-Sena said. "It has historic roots. It's simple and straightforward. I also like the idea that adjacent to the Channel District is something that refers to water."

Stork, the aquarium's leader, also said water should feature prominently in the new name. He threw out suggestions like the Harbor District or the River District. The city's new Riverwalk, after all, is being built to reconnect residents to the downtown waterfront.

"If you look at what the mayor is saying, the water is so important," Stork said. "We're giving the water back to the people with the Riverwalk. Connecting it to the river is important."

Water might be a better foundation to build a new name on than the history of the area. Kite-Powell said there isn't much history to draw from. The only other name associated with the area besides Fort Brooke — now bestowed upon a parking garage — is "Garrison" (Fort Brooke was a military garrison).

It's also the name of a downtown body of water, the Garrison Channel, which Vinik's new development would overlook.

"Historically speaking — and I'm not endorsing or suggesting this in any way — but 'Garrison' is the only historic name you can give it that would be in any way accurate," Kite-Powell said. "It's not particularly inviting, though. 'Garrison' sounds like a jail."

He had another suggestion, though: "Maybe we can call it the History District."

• • •

Why is a name so important?

"You want to create a sense of place, a sense of identity that is unique," Buckhorn said. "You want people, when they say it, to know what it means and what's involved in it.

"It's not like you have to change a name. It's a fresh start."

Does the mayor have any ideas? The Buckhorn District, perhaps? He declined the honor.

"There are far more creative people than me out there that will come up with a much better name than I ever could," he said.

Bill Wickett, a spokesman for the Vinik project, said the new name will be reflective of Tampa and its history.

"We hope to not only build a vibrant urban neighborhood, but to create a great sense of place and a connective soul for everything within that neighborhood, celebrating Tampa," he said. "Any potential branding or recommended names would likely be reflective of the area's best attributes, along with Tampa's history and heritage."

But so far, the public hasn't been much help. Thousands have used tampawaterfront2020.com to make suggestions about what they want to see in Vinik's new development (an Apple Store got 54 votes). But Wickett said only a handful have suggested a new name. He declined to share those suggestions.

Lewis, the Channel District neighbor, thinks "Tampa Waterside" would be a good name. But he's more emphatic about what the area should not be called.

"It would have to be something other than the Channel District," he said. "Because there's only one Channel District, and we're it."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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