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After decade of false starts, new team takes on the Heights in Tampa

Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart has gutted the city's old Water Works Building to make way for a new restaurant. Is it time for a new neighbor? Some say the time may be right for the Heights development.
Published Sep. 26, 2013

TAMPA — After a decade of false starts, the timing might finally be right for the Heights.

Next door, Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart has gutted the city's old Water Works Building to make way for a new restaurant.

Nearby, City Hall is poised to launch a $6.5 million renovation of Water Works Park.

And on the Heights itself, a new ownership and development team has filed a rezoning request for 49 acres overlooking a scenic bend in the Hillsborough River.

"That's the last missing piece," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "and I think it's a critical piece for us. . . . It will finish the development of the (east) side of the river."

On the Heights property, Tampa private equity investor Adam Harden represents a group of new owners that brought the project out of Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings last year.

Early backers of the project, who included Tampa RV tycoon Donald Wallace and FishHawk Ranch and Westchase developer Bill Bishop, had a good plan, Buckhorn said, "but the economy tanked."

Now the real estate market is recovering, financing is more available and there's new demand for urban residential development, the mayor said.

"I think the market is right for it," Buckhorn said.

Previous plans for the Heights called for 1,900 multifamily housing units, 100 boat slips and 260,000 square feet of offices, stores and cafes.

The overall density and intensity of development would remain unchanged, and no change is proposed for the allowed mix of uses, Harden said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. Harden, whose business partner is Chas Bruck, was for 16 years the director of operations at US Home, a subsidiary of Lennar Homes, where he oversaw a $440 million home-building division with projects in Hills­borough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

"The Heights is Tampa's best opportunity to create a vital mixed-use urban village in the uptown area," he said, complete with "needed services, brain-based employment, recreation and entertainment" in a plan focused on the river.

As part of the project, the developers would extend the Riverwalk from Water Works Park to North Boulevard. Palm and Highland avenues would get bike lanes to comply with the city's trails and greenways master plan.

The Tampa City Council's first public hearing on the project is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 24. If it's approved, the developers plan to kick off the project later this year with the restoration of the historic trolley barn, the cavernous red-brick warehouse with "Tampa Armature Works" painted across its top.

"He has some very bold plans," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's top development official, including engaging the architect for the Oxford Exchange to work on a plan for the trolley barn to become a structure with offices on top and an event space and restaurants on the ground floor. That has included working with federal officials to make sure the trolley barn redevelopment qualifies for historic tax credits.

Plans call for development to take place in three, two-year phases, the first targeted to be finished by the end of 2015, the last by the end of 2019.

The result, Buckhorn said, could be a walkable neighborhood that would create demand for the restaurant going into the city's historic but long-vacant Water Works Building.

"The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned," said Gonzmart, who is investing more than $4 million to transform the Water Works Building into Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits.

The 6,800-square-foot restaurant is expected to be done in March, with a microbrewery to follow soon after that.

Just south of the Water Works Building, the city has begun restoring Ulele Spring — Tampa's original source of drinking water — in Water Works Park, and there's a lot more work on the way.

The City Council is expected to consider a $6.5 million contract with Biltmore Construction next week to redevelop the park. The spring's water currently is piped to the river, but the restoration will create a basin that allows water to pool on its way to the river.

The 5-acre park also will get new lights, decorative fences, pavilions with public rest rooms, play areas, public boat slips and a stage for events and performances. As part of the project, the Riverwalk will be extended north to Seventh Avenue and south to Doyle Carlton Drive.

"We're looking for them to be out there doing work in October," city contract administration director David Vaughn said.

The goal is to finish the work by the time the restaurant opens in the spring or have it staged and sequenced so that any work left to do would not interfere with the restaurant's operations.

"Tampa's waterfront, as people know it, is going to change in five years," with water taxis and increased boat traffic on the river," Gonzmart said. "I can't sleep I get so excited about it."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Heights project is on the east side of the Hillsborough River. A quote from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and a headline in the Sept. 20, 2013 print edition of the Tampa Bay Times were incorrect on this point.

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