TAMPA — The future of Tampa's downtown riverfront could hinge on redeveloping an area that includes the aging North Boulevard Homes public housing apartments.
Move the tenants, demolish the 682 apartments, and that would create a 40-acre site near the Hillsborough River ripe for mixed-use, mixed-income development.
That, at least, was a key recommendation Friday from a study group sent to Tampa this week by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C.
"I think you've got all the ingredients to be a real national model . . . of how you rebuild urban neighborhoods," said one member of the study team, Cathy Crenshaw, a commercial real estate executive from Birmingham, Ala.
The group consisted of experts in economic development, government, land use and real estate development who volunteer to help communities work on development challenges.
The group spent the week looking at the riverfront and talking to local officials, business leaders, residents and developers. On Friday, it delivered its report to a standing-room-only crowd at the Tampa Convention Center.
They focused on an area mainly on the south and west bank of the river, north of Interstate 275 and east of Rome Avenue. It includes about 140 acres and 7,200 feet of river frontage. More than 80 percent of it is owned by the city, Hillsborough County, School Board or Tampa Housing Authority.
In addition to redeveloping North Boulevard Homes, the group suggested:
• Redeveloping the city's 12-acre wastewater vehicle yard near the river. Mayor Bob Buckhorn endorsed the idea, which he estimated would cost the city about $10 million. "It is high, it has got great view corridors into the downtown, and it is a block off the river," he said.
• Increasing the density of new housing built in the area from the current 20 to 25 units an acre to at least 60 units an acre. This would draw private investment and the kind of stores and services that residents moving to a new neighborhood want.
• Improving transportation and creating more access points so residents from all over the city can get to and enjoy the riverfront.
• Bolstering programs at existing city and county recreation and community centers in the area with unique offerings — fencing, for example — not offered anywhere else locally.
• Capitalizing on immediate opportunities to make the riverfront more active and inviting. These could include opening a farmer's market, incorporating the area into the activities of college rowing teams that already visit Tampa and bringing live performances to the amphitheater at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
This was not the institute's first report to the city. In October, a different panel gave the city a more wide-ranging assessment of Tampa's potential for urban development. In that report, it suggested finishing the Riverwalk, allowing food carts and restaurants near the river and extending the TECO trolley up to Tampa Heights and west of the river.
After hearing Friday's recommendations, the crowd generally praised the ideas.
"I've been wiping tears out of my eyes," said Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association & Crimewatch. "This plan here is going to do wonders for us."
Buckhorn said the plan offers Tampa a historic opportunity to expand its downtown in a way that creates life and activity around an underused stretch of the river.
"Twenty years from now, they will say this is where we changed Tampa's history," he said. "Our job is not to put these plans on the shelf when these folks leave. . . . Our job is to go execute it. This is where it begins."
If it does come together, the plan could create one of the biggest transformations for downtown Tampa since the 1970s, when the "Quad Block" project brought One Tampa City Center and the Hyatt Regency-Tampa Hotel to what had been a run-down area south of City Hall.
The challenges, however, are as big as the opportunities:
• The city needs to create a new community redevelopment area, which requires county approval, to help channel increased property tax revenue from new development into further improvements for the area.
• Because the land is owned by a variety of public agencies, there would need to be a shared strategy and commitment between the city, Hillsborough County, the Housing Authority and the School Board.
• Officials would have to find considerable sums of money for transportation and infrastructure improvements in a time of severely constrained budgets.
• Because of the anemic real estate market, private investment for redevelopment could be hard to come by.
• The area has a reputation for being unsafe, and local officials need to improve policing and take other steps to change that image.
• Relocating the 1,700 residents of North Boulevard Homes would require federal funds, and Housing Authority officials have yet to talk to federal officials about the idea. Nor does the authority know yet what the relocations would cost.
But the Housing Authority has talked to residents for several years about doing something different with North Boulevard Homes, said Housing Authority president Jerome Ryans. While it would need to hold many more meetings, he said the idea of relocation should not come as a surprise to many residents.
The institute team suggested a two-year time frame for relocating residents of North Boulevard Homes, which would involve giving them vouchers for Section 8 housing. That's doable, Ryans said, if federal funds are available.
"We've got a real opportunity here," he said. "We're committed at the housing authority to making all this happen."
If nothing else, the mayor said, it would be worth it to move tenants out of North Boulevard Homes, which was built in 1941 and is the housing authority's oldest complex.
"For those folks who live in North Boulevard Homes, this is about transforming their lives as well," Buckhorn said. "To give those young people that I see out there at 12 o'clock at night, unattended, an opportunity to change their lives, that, if nothing else, would make this a successful project and a moral obligation on our part to go do it."
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.