TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other city officials were thrilled last week when Feldman Equities submitted preliminary plans for what would be the tallest building on Florida's west coast — a 52-story mixed-use tower on the riverfront site where Donald Trump in 2005 announced an extravagant condo project that never got off the ground.
Like Trump, Larry Feldman is a native New Yorker; unlike Trump, Feldman now lives in Tampa and has a proven track record in the bay area. He is co-owner of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Tampa and three office buildings in downtown St. Petersburg. Raised in a family that started in real estate by building enclosures around plumbing equipment, Feldman successfully marketed projects in Manhattan — including a 40-story midtown office tower — before investing in the Orlando area. But for the past few years his focus has been on Tampa Bay's increasingly vibrant downtowns.
The father of a son and daughter in their 20s, Feldman spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about his newest project and how the millennial generation is changing American cities.
Why did you decide to proceed now with a 52-story tower on the same site where the Trump project failed?
The distressed era is over and gone. There are no great bargains to be had in buying a 1985 building where the technology and quality are not what they are in (a new) building.
So we're looking at the fact that vacancy rates in downtown Tampa have approached 9 percent, and when you get into single digits in Class A office space, you begin to see rents spike and you begin to see where new buildings are ready to be built. The lead time is such you can't wait until vacancy rates get down to 4 or 5 percent — by that time, nine other guys are building. You want to be the first. If you're the last guy to build in Florida, you usually lose your shirt and your underwear.
Why a mixed-use tower with restaurant, shops, office space and residences instead of an all-residential tower? And will it be rentals or condos?
I won't be able to talk about the new project in any detail, but it's that live-work-play cliche that you hear over and over again. A mixed-used tower is the epitome of live-work-play. We're seeing for the first time in maybe two generations where people are living (downtown). The downtowns of St. Pete and Tampa are outperforming the suburban markets — downtown St. Pete's vacancy rate is 7.6 percent, that's the lowest in years. (Companies) say, "my workforce will be a lot happier here than in a suburban parking lot environment where they've got to get in their cars."
So with mixed-use you can leave your office on the fourth floor, hit the bar on the first floor and go back up to your apartment on the 23rd floor?
That quality of life for employees brings a higher-paid, higher intellectual fire-power population, which is what Tampa desperately needs if it's going to move ahead as a city. The 20-somethings, the 30-somethings that heretofore were lured to New York, to Silicon Valley to Boston — if we're going to keep them here, it's going to happen downtown.
When the Trump Tower was announced 10 years ago, one story said that the surrounding neighborhood "goes dormant after 5 p.m. and still lacks the swanky restaurants and sophisticated retail'' that would appeal to residents. Isn't that still somewhat true?
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We're in the first or second inning here in downtown Tampa, but you can see the change. In the playoffs of the Stanley Cup, we had thousands of people spontaneously gathering in Curtis Hixon Park and hundreds of people walking on the Riverwalk. I live on Harbour Island and bike all around. You go on certain times of the weekend, you have to get off your bike and walk, it's too crowded. There's a tremendous amount of foot traffic.
What have been some of the catalysts of change downtown?
The Amalie Arena is one of the highest-producing arenas in the country. We have the performing arts center, we have multiple museums, we have about 6 million square feet of office space all interconnected by the new Riverwalk. Kudos to the mayor for having finally done what no other mayor was able to get done — to finalize it. It interconnects all of those venues and creates a walkable downtown. The whole key to cities all over America is a walkable downtown. Downtown St. Pete is a little bit ahead, but downtown Tampa is on its way to catch up with the Riverwalk.
How does Tampa pull even?
One thing that needs to happen with the Riverwalk is that it needs to be activated with restaurants and bars similar to Beach Drive (in St. Petersburg). The mayor does want that. He said what he liked most about the project was that there were going to be restaurants, bars and retail on the Riverwalk.
When Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik announced plans in December for his $1 billion mixed-used development on 40 acres in Channelside, you said you thought that was a bit too far from Tampa's downtown core. Have you changed your view?
Five to ten years out it will be a good site but it's a little bit early in that location because it's not a true walkable destination yet. I think it will be as time goes by, so I applaud Jeff Vinik and what he's doing there. It's great for the city and that's what the city needs, people willing to make a long-term bet. But there's no comparison to our site, which is more of a core downtown site.
Last year you sold an office building in West Shore, which has long been one of Tampa Bay's prime business districts. Is West Shore losing favor with developers and investors?
West Shore is always going to have a strength, in a way it's almost like midtown Manhattan, but most places in West Shore don't have that true walkability. In the long range I'm more bullish on downtown. As I think about this whole walkability thing, it's going to happen in downtown, where you have buildings close together, and it's going to happen along the waterfront.
It's taken me many years to understand this market. I recently had what my kids call a "duh'' moment. It's all about the water, that's why people are here in Tampa Bay. The DNA of people that live here is that either you're a boater or a beacher or a fisherman or somebody that just loves looking at the water or all of the above. Otherwise, you'd be on a golf course in Orlando. It's just a different kind of culture here in Tampa Bay versus other cities.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate