USF medical school's proposed move to downtown Tampa part of a trend

The University of South Florida wants to incorporate its new Morsani College of Medicine with its Heart Health Institute, a new venture proposed for this downtown Tampa location.
The University of South Florida wants to incorporate its new Morsani College of Medicine with its Heart Health Institute, a new venture proposed for this downtown Tampa location.
Published Dec. 26, 2014

TAMPA — The University of South Florida is not alone in its ambitions to build a medical school in the heart of a city.

The University of Buffalo, Indiana University, the University of Texas and the University of Washington have all launched or plan to launch similar projects.

"It makes the medical school more attractive to top faculty and students," urban consultant Paul Umbach said of a downtown campus, "and it helps economically stimulate urban areas."

He cites such institutions as Johns Hopkins Medicine in downtown Baltimore, the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. They're renowned as medical schools as well as research and treatment centers.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also sees successful urban cores fueled by the rise of those schools.

"An economic engine in the form of a major university," Buckhorn said, "has transformed other cities."

• • •

Umbach said it's not just medical schools going downtown. Everyone and everything is going urban.

"I think you'll see that's a megatrend in the next 50 years," he said.

His firm, Tripp Umbach, which has helped plan and build about 20 of these urban medical campuses, is working on similar projects in Evansville, Ind.; Omaha, Neb.; Spokane, Wash.; and Las Vegas.

Cities and universities are discovering that downtown campuses offer potent benefits for the colleges and cities.

"I think it's historically been true that the medical schools that have done the best over the years are in urban areas," Umbach said, "and there's lots of reasons for that."

Here are his three rules of thumb for urban medical campuses:

• An increasing number of people are choosing to live, work and spend their time in urban environments. Medical students and faculty are no different.

"The young people of tomorrow will be much more attracted to urban cores," Umbach said, "and not suburban locations."

Students and professionals will drive the local economy by living, eating, shopping and spending money there.

Arizona State University has run with that idea in downtown Phoenix: Its downtown campus is home to five colleges that serve 11,500 students. The university's law school might move there in 2016.

"What better way to have an infusion of life in downtown," said ASU's vice provost of the downtown campus, Chris Callahan, "than to put a campus downtown where thousands of young people are infused with the city."

• Medical schools don't stand on their own. They're also aligned with teaching hospitals, treatment centers and research facilities. In many cases, moving a medical school into an urban area will put students and faculty closer to those traditionally urban facilities.

That might create a critical mass that could attract more medical development: more doctors' offices, more treatment and research facilities and medical startups, and thus more higher-paid workers in the city.

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• There's a practical reason why cities and medical schools fit so well together: That's where the patients are. There's also a greater diversity of patients and ailments for residents to treat.

City residents benefit by being served by the advanced medical research and treatment facilities that tend to cluster around medical schools.

• • •

The University of Buffalo is building its medical school in downtown Buffalo, 6 miles from its old one.

The university also hopes it's building an economic engine for western New York.

"That was part of the strategic planning that went into effect before we even began," said Dr. Michael Cain, dean of the medical school and UB's vice president of health sciences. "It's much more than simply the medical school had an old building and needed a new one."

The new $375 million School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is expected to be finished in 2017. It will be eight stories and 650,000 square feet.

The university is calling it the largest medical education building in the country. It will allow the university to expand its medical students and faculty to 2,000.

The school is part of an expansion expected to add 3,000 jobs to the city's 120-acre health hub: the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The medical school will have its own subway stop in the basement and pedestrian skybridges linking it to other buildings, including the new women and children's hospital and outpatient facility.

The medical school is being built without a cafeteria, Cain said, to spur new restaurants near the medical hub. He also said abandoned warehouses and other buildings are being redeveloped into housing.

"So it's had a large impact on renovating space around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus," he said, "to essentially deal with the 20,000 (workers) who will want to live and work and buy things in the city."

• • •

Buckhorn said a downtown medical school wasn't a new idea. But no one knew how to make it happen.

Enter Jeff Vinik. The Tampa Bay Lightning owner wants to incorporate the campus into his plans to redevelop the southern end of downtown Tampa.

Last month, he offered to donate an acre of his downtown holdings for the project. It's part of 24 barren acres he owns along with the hockey team, the lease to the Amalie Arena and the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

A medical school would be the kind of high-end, high-tech work space that would complement the residential and retail components of Vinik's soon-to-be-unveiled master plan for downtown Tampa.

The idea of putting the new Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa is supported by the mayor, USF president Judy Genshaft, key donors and, in recent weeks, a key group of university trustees.

USF wants to incorporate the new Morsani College of Medicine into the same downtown building as the USF Heart Health Institute, a new university venture looking for a home.

The proposed structure is 12 floors with 287,824 square feet at Channelside Drive and S Meridian Avenue. It could cost up to $163 million.

What has made Vinik's donation even more enticing is his ownership group, Strategic Property Partners, also plans to develop 3 acres nearby. Strategic Property Partners would build a 10-story medical office tower and a parking garage next to the new USF building. That would give USF's medical programs room to expand.

It would also help create a USF medical cluster in downtown Tampa. USF's teaching partner, Tampa General Hospital, and USF's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation are also downtown.

Umbach, who is familiar with the Tampa Bay area, said that cluster could launch a new medical sector for the area.

"The medical school could really create an innovation economy," he said.

• • •

The next step for USF's downtown medical school is to win the full endorsement of all 13 trustees at its meeting on Dec. 4. If they approve it, USF would ask the Florida Board of Governors for tens of millions in state funding in January.

Are there drawbacks to the idea? Problems can emerge, Umbach said, if cities don't offer enough planning and support.

"I can't think of anyone in the country who built an urban campus that hasn't done well," he said. "The only footnote I would put in there is that it takes very good planning. These medical centers are big, big drivers for employment and visitation, and you want to make sure that planning is done well."

Questions Umbach asked included: Will there be enough housing? Amenities? Public transportation? Will there be a grocery store nearby? Those last two issues — a grocery store and public transportation — are definitely issues in downtown Tampa.

"Cities find a way to make (urban campuses) work," Umbach said, "and the reason they find a way to make it work is because they're so important to their vitality and to their economy."

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