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Ideas spill in for USF’s Forest Preserve: stadium, hotels, tech hub and more

Most of them are from developers. Hillsborough County officials pushed to keep the land untouched.
Faculty members, students and community members gathered for a May 7 protest against a University of South Florida plan to explore development of a 769-acre preserve north of the Tampa campus.
Faculty members, students and community members gathered for a May 7 protest against a University of South Florida plan to explore development of a 769-acre preserve north of the Tampa campus. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published May 28, 2021|Updated May 28, 2021

The University of South Florida’s Forest Preserve and golf course could turn into restaurants, apartments, hotels, research hubs or a football stadium, if developers have their way.

The university on Friday posted the responses it received to a controversial request for how the 769-acre tract might be put to commercial use to generate revenue. The land, just north of the Tampa campus, currently serves as an outdoor classroom for teaching and research. It includes federally protected wetlands, indigenous burial sites and endangered species.

The university sent out the request in April without consulting those who manage how the land is used, a move that drew heavy backlash from faculty, students and community activists.

Related: Debate over USF Forest Preserve heats up as deadline nears for developers

Organizations responding to the request ranged from Hillsborough County government, which called for the permanent preservation of the land, to prominent firms including Bromley Companies, Beck Group and 13th Floor Investments. Bromley is the New York-based developer of Midtown Tampa.

The Atlantic Companies — which has worked with several universities in developing land, including the Innovation District at the University of Florida — wrote that they “would like nothing more than to further discuss the opportunities for this site.”

AP Affiliates, responsible for the acquisition of Tampa Palms I from Bank of Boston and Citibank in the 1990s, envisioned a “specialized tech space” and an incubator for startups similar to the area around Harvard and MIT in Boston. The firm also envisioned affordable family housing for doctoral students and teaching assistants.

LeBel Landscaping, which has maintained properties including Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Florida Aquarium, ZooTampa and the Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory, offered their maintenance services.

This map from the University of South Florida's request for information shows the location of the school's Forest Preserve, north of campus. [University of South Florida]
This map from the University of South Florida's request for information shows the location of the school's Forest Preserve, north of campus. [University of South Florida]

Beck Group and TRS Development both offered multiphase plans that included a football stadium in addition to numerous other features including housing, retail, restaurants, hotels and a research facility.

13th Floor Investments proposed residential ideas.

“If this critical environmental site should ever be offered for development, the County would request the opportunity to discuss options for a joint County and State plan to preserve the property,” a letter from Board of County Commissioners Chair Pat Kemp said.

After a protest on the land and resolutions from the USF faculty senate and faculty union calling for its preservation, the university announced it would form an advisory committee. The panel will include faculty members and students, and will determine how to move forward after reviewing each of the responses.

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“The advisory committee will discuss criteria to evaluate the highest and best use of the property, or pieces of the property, which could be its current use,” a statement from the university said. “As shared previously, the university recognizes the land has significant value in support of research and academic opportunities.”

If USF president Steve Currall decides to move forward with a more formal process, the statement said, another competitive process would take place with a formal request for proposals.

It said, “any decision would ultimately be made by the president and subject to approval by the USF Board of Trustees, following an open and inclusive process.”

The advisory committee has yet to be named, USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email.

Stephen Hesterberg and Jeannie Mounger, organizers of the Save USF Forest Preserve group that organized a protest, wrote an op-ed and have been raising awareness of the issue on social media. They are co-sponsoring a student government resolution calling for the land to be preserved.

Hesterberg said he does not understand the need for another committee.

“I think it’s still pretty shocking this whole process went through,” he said. “It was so clear that no one at the university wants this.”

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