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After years of planning, West River 'renaissance' begins in earnest

The Renaissance at West River is planned as a 160-unit senior building at the corner of Main Street and Rome Avenue in West Tampa. It is part of the West River urban renewal project. [Courtesy of Tampa Housing Authority]
The Renaissance at West River is planned as a 160-unit senior building at the corner of Main Street and Rome Avenue in West Tampa. It is part of the West River urban renewal project. [Courtesy of Tampa Housing Authority]
Published May 11, 2018

TAMPA — As if West Tampa wasn't getting enough attention with the opening of a new riverfront park, construction is set to begin on West River, a signature urban renewal project expected to provide many of the park's regular visitors.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Tampa Housing Authority officials Thursday broke ground on the Renaissance at West River, a $46 million senior housing building.

It's just the start.

After years of planning, the West River project is finally moving ahead at a good clip, with two other apartment blocks financed and scheduled to break ground over the next 12 months. And the Housing Authority expects in the next few weeks to announce a development partner for construction of a 70,000-square-foot office block.

In conjunction with the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, opening this weekend, West River is expected to turn the west bank of the Hillsborough River into another focal point for the city's growing downtown. When complete, it will add 840 public housing apartments, 1,200 homes priced at market rate and 90,000 square feet of retail to a 150-acre area of the city that for years was neglected.

Most of the new construction will be in the footprint of North Boulevard Homes, a World War II-era public housing complex that in recent decades was marred by high crime and poverty.

"We are in the midst of what I think is the most significant transformation of West Tampa that has ever occurred," Buckhorn said. "It's not about the bricks and mortar; it's about changing lives. And we are about to change some lives."

The fast pace is in marked contrast to Encore, the Housing Authority's most recent urban renewal project on the eastern edge of downtown Tampa. It was launched during the Great Recession, and the agency is still looking for developers for lots earmarked for a grocery store and hotels.

Housing Authority officials said they were able to line up funding for a number of projects in West River through state tax credits and other public funding sources over the past 18 months. The city is also partnering with private-sector developers including the Related Group of Miami.

"This signals a definite type of bullishness about this site," said Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority's chief operating officer.

Funding for the six-story Renaissance includes $2.9 million from Housing Authority funds and $7 million from Florida's State Apartment Incentive Loan program.

About $17 million will come from Banc of America Community Development Corp., which will buy low-income housing tax credits awarded by the Florida Housing Finance Corp.

Next up for West River is the rehabilitation of the 150-unit Mary Bethune High Rise Apartments. Built in 1966, the complex will cost an estimated $70,000 per unit to bring up to date.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for the end of the year on a 118-unit apartment block earmarked for families.

More than 2,000 people were relocated from North Boulevard Homes' 820 barracks-style apartments before they were demolished. About 60 percent of the residents moved into privately owned housing through a housing voucher program commonly known as Section 8.

Displaced residents have the first shot at renting in West River, though previous relocation efforts show that only about 10 percent take that option.

One who plans to return is Mary Sturks, 70, a retired filter plant operator who moved back to Florida from New York. She is staying in senior housing in Encore but wants to be on the west side of the Hillsborough River to be close to her 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

"My grandkids are all over here," she said. "It's going to be great."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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