TAMPA — Commuters heading down E Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida these days might notice some subtle hints of change along the North Tampa thoroughfare.
Construction is brewing on a new World of Beer gastropub just steps from a recently opened Wawa convenience store near 30th Street. About 1 mile to the west, a Starbucks will soon replace an old gas station on the southeast corner of Fowler and 15th Street.
The biggest change, however, may come with the latest renovation of the venerable University Mall. Mall owner RD Management LLC recently announced plans for a multiphase project that will begin in early 2016 with the transformation of the mall's western wing, including the addition of three new tenants and two freestanding restaurants.
One of the most significant changes will be the addition of an outdoor lifestyle area, which will replace the indoor mall corridor near the shuttered JCPenney.
Similar improvements will follow for other parts of the 41-year-old mall, which contains more than 125 tenants, including Macy's, Sears, Burlington Coat Factory and a Dillard's closeout store.
Tampa Innovation Alliance executive director Mark Sharpe said his organization — a consortium of North Tampa businesses and institutions including Busch Gardens, the Museum of Science & Industry and the University of South Florida — is working to bring redevelopment to the neighborhoods around USF and believes the mall can be a cornerstone.
Retail and restaurants will continue to be important players at the mall and along the rest of the Fowler Avenue corridor. However, Sharpe and his fellow visionaries say that improvements catering to medical tourism and research industries are vital in an area with several major hospitals and health care facilities, including Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital Tampa and James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
"I think the vision is taking shape," Sharpe said. "Our goal is to make University Mall the destination for visitors, employees at local businesses, and the 42,000 students who attend nearby USF."
Colliers International Tampa Bay managing director Jim Kovacs said the institutions surrounding the mall give it a good chance to rebound.
"The malls that find it most challenging to become more relevant are the ones that have locations that no longer would support the mall," Kovacs said. "This particular mall is in a good location, in a quasi-urban environment, and has a lot of good demographics, particularly with the daytime activity around the mall with the university and the hospitals."
The transformation, however, will not be without challenges. The mall's reputation has suffered in recent years because of some of the troubled neighborhoods that surround it and the larger university area. Key tenants and shoppers have shifted to the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel.
Elizabeth Strom, an associate professor of social policy at USF and an interested observer, noted that University Mall has been "slowly dying for the 10 years that I've been here."
"It's good for the whole area that something positive is happening at the mall," she said. "The mall has a huge footprint, and if it isn't animated it becomes very hard to work around."
Adding to the challenge is that malls across the nation have struggled to reinvent themselves in recent years.
"Shopping malls in general, across the U.S., as a property type, have been suffering," USF real estate professor Greg Smersh said. "People want more convenience. You have more couples who both work and spend less time at home, so they don't mind paying more for convenience. They would rather pull into a Walgreens than go to a shopping center. The same trend has affected shopping malls."
Smersh added, however, that a mixed-use approach involving office space and residential has helped some malls rebound. That's the exact plan at University Mall. For the renovation, RD Management is partnering with New York's S9, an architectural firm that specializes in the planning and design of large-scale, mixed-use developments.
"The most important thing is we have a super smart group that has experience in retail and a lot of money," said Kovacs, who expressed optimism about the mall rebounding. "Those are the three best ingredients to fix a property like this … and I don't know if the mall has had those three components all at once.
"They bought the mall at the right price so they can add new capital to fix its problems and make it relevant again."
Sharpe said making the area more dynamic for the students at USF and young residents in the surrounding neighborhoods is another top priority.
"(Hillsborough County's) commitment to helping shape the area, along with the local research and science groups, goes a long way toward providing many high-wage job opportunities in an area where, frankly, many residents are either unemployed or underemployed," Sharpe said.
Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.