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USF’s downtown medical school is almost complete. Here’s a sneak peek.

The long-anticipated building, part of Water Street Tampa, will welcome students on Jan. 13.

TAMPA — From the outside, the University of South Florida’s new Morsani College of Medicine building looks complete. The sleek skyscraper in downtown Tampa is about to become the among the first completed pieces of the Water Street project backed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

About 1,800 students, faculty and staff will fill the 13-story tower when the next semester begins Jan. 13. With 395,000 square feet of space, it has been billed as a state-of-the-art teaching and research facility connecting the medical school with nearby Tampa General Hospital and other downtown destinations.

During a special tour Wednesday, medical school dean Dr. Charles Lockwood said the building will help USF keep up with the quick pace of change in medicine.

Dr. Charles J. Lockwood, dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, during a tour Wednesday of the school's new home in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

“Our facility on the USF main campus met the needs of the time when it was built in the 1970s,” Lockwood said. “But it doesn’t fit with where medical education is going. It also posed a geographic problem. The best medical schools have a strong academic partnership with a community hospital. We knew our future depended on our relationship with Tampa General Hospital, and being downtown helped us continue to build on that relationship.”

RELATED: The cost to build USF’s new medical school has jumped $16 million

The tower won’t have a traditional library or bookstore. Instead, students will have access to librarians who can help them find the latest medical research on their own computers. A large touch screen on the third floor will let students use their hands to enlarge clinical diagrams and use other interactive learning techniques.

Lockwood said the building was designed to stand the test of time. Classrooms, lecture halls and lab space on various floors are able to be customized. A 400-seat auditorium can be split into two 200-seat halls. Classrooms can be divided to host intimate 12-person study groups or larger groups of 50.

One experimental classroom space has been nicknamed the “black box theater of learning," with tracks built into the ceiling that allow the room to transform from one space into another, accommodating all types of technology and hands-on teaching techniques.

“The idea of reading from a text book and memorizing it is completely antiquated,” Lockwood said. “This building is designed to better marry teaching and technology to how humans actually learn.”

A view of an adjustable multipurpose classroom inside the new USF Health building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

USF partnered with Microsoft to deploy a range of wireless technology advancements in the building. Lockwood said it’s the first time the company has worked in this way with a medical school on real-time interactivity for group learning.

The concrete-base building has also been fortified to protect against hurricane winds and a 21-foot storm surge.

Student lounges face the Port of Tampa Bay and offer waterside views of downtown Tampa. The students are divided into nine groups, similar to the “houses" of Gryffindor or Slytherin in the fictional Harry Potter series. The groups, each with its own lounge, give students built-in support beyond just their age or year status as they finish their degrees.

RELATED: Downtown Tampa needs a ‘medical district,’ hospital CEO says

The building will cost $189 million. University officials originally earmarked $152 million for construction and design in 2015. The USF board of trustees board revised the budget to $172.9 million in 2017, when the school decided to add two floors. Three floors will not be open when the building welcomes students and faculty next month.

The laboratory at the new Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

When asked about the rise in cost, Lockwood said the “reality of securing funding” was the biggest challenge in building the school as the university sought support from the Legislature.

“We had to fight every year in Tallahassee for funding," he said. "Meanwhile, we’d have to keep re-negotiating the costs of construction, which kept going up.”

In addition, university officials made decisions about medical equipment that would be expensive in the short-term but save more in the long-term, Lockwood said.

USF’s Heart Institute will move into the building in February, and will have dedicated labs and collaborative space focused on cardiovascular research. USF’s physician assistant program will move into the building in May 2021. The university’s Taneja College of Pharmacy will occupy the 12th floor and will start classes there in the fall of 2021.

Tampa General Hospital signed a $20 million lease to operate an urgent care clinic and an imaging center on the first floor of the building. The clinic will open in April and the imaging center in July. The hospital also will have some space on the unfinished floors of the building to develop as clinical and office space at a later date.

A view of ongoing construction outside the new USF Health building downtown. Other buildings in the Water Street Tampa development are underway as well. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The USF tower is the first ground-up construction to be completed as part of the Water Street Tampa project, headed by Strategic Property Partners, a real estate firm backed by Vinik and Bill Gates’ private wealth firm, Cascade Investment.

The real estate firm built a cooling plant to provide central air conditioning to dozens of buildings, including the medical school. Many other buildings are under construction, from office towers to apartments, a grocery store and hotels. The $3 billion redevelopment, encompassing 50-plus acres, is expected to be completed in 2026 or 2027.


A rendering shows how the new USF Health building and neighboring structures will look when completed. About 1,800 students, faculty and staff will fill the 13-story tower when the next semester begins Jan. 13. [Courtesy of the USF Health]

Morsani College of Medicine | by the numbers:

395,000 total square feet

13 stories

47,437 tons of concrete was used to create to the building. That’s comparable to the weight of 155 Boeing 747-8 jets.

100,400 square feet dedicated solely to the Heart Institute.

254 miles of IT wiring