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Tampa seeks to parlay city land in booming West River to kickstart affordable housing

The city is seeking developers for an 18-acre tract in a once blighted area, now booming.

TAMPA — For years, sewer and water pipes have been stacked on the ground near the western bank of the Hillsborough River.

It wasn’t exactly the highest and best use of valuable city property, located west of the Hillsborough River, east of Rome Avenue, south of Columbus Drive and north of Spruce Street, known as the “Rome Yard.”

That could change in December when an ambitious city plan to transform the lot into a mixed-use project with the potential to kickstart development on the west side of the river meets the private market’s appetite for big-ticket development projects in a pandemic economy.

Last month, the city issued a request for proposal for the property. A late October technical workshop drew 53 interested parties, indicating that strong interest remains in constructing an enticing mix of market-rate and affordable housing and retail.

The area already has a busy feel. The Tampa Housing Authority recently opened a $46 million senior living building on the site of the old North Boulevard Homes, a public housing development bulldozed in 2018. More buildings are coming.

The city completed the ambitious $35 million makeover of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in 2018, too. And it recently snagged a $24 million federal grant to extend the Riverwalk west along the river, including a dozen miles of biking and pedestrian trails separated from traffic.

A previous attempt to issue a request-for-proposal was pulled late in the administration of former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, but this time is different, city officials say.

“We control the land. We get to choose. Whoever wants to develop it has to meet the city’s requirements,” said Rob Rosner, the city’s director of economic opportunity. “We may not take any of the bids.”

Most of the details — if the city will sell the land, lease it or some other combination and what will end up being built — is up for negotiation with the winning bidder or bidders, Rosner said.

But the city is adamant that whoever wants to build what will likely be high-priced housing will also guarantee that 20 percent of those units will be for people earning 80 percent of the area median income ($53,500 for a family of four) and another 40 percent reserved for those making no more than 140 percent of area media income ($93,660 for a family of four).

Mayor Jane Castor, Rosner said, is sensitive to the gentrification fears of many low-income West Tampa residents.

“We’re listening to them. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Rosner said.

The West Tampa Community Redevelopment Area could assist in infrastructure improvements. That agency has a new manager, Jesus Niño.

Niño, who joined the city as an urban development manager a few months ago after serving as Bradenton’s economic development guru, has very high hopes for what might come.

“This project is a huge catalyst for the area, by tying the Riverwalk to Tampa Housing Authority’s projects and the redevelopment going along Main Street,” Niño said.

“West Tampa is blowing up in a good way. This is going to be huge,” Niño said.

Castor has said the West Tampa revitalization efforts are a linchpin of her mayoral vision, “Transforming Tampa Tomorrow." In a recent interview, Castor said she was “always optimistic” that her plans would come to fruition, even if the economic downturn worsens.

The city land, Castor said, is part of a set of “visionary ideas that we have for that parcel of land.” And she said the community is behind the plan.

That hasn’t always been the case. Late in Buckhorn’s administration, the community objected to a previous proposal, said Joe Robinson, a longtime West Tampa activist and chairman of the redevelopment area’s citizen advisory committee. Robinson will have a seat on the selection committee.

But Castor, he said, took a different tack.

“The new mayor said, ‘Oh no, we’re not doing that,'” Robinson said.

After much discussion with the city, residents are backing the project and hopeful, he said.

“This represents the best we’re going to get,” Robinson said, citing provisions for minority contractors and ideas incorporated from his committee’s strategic action plan. “I don’t know nobody complaining about what’s out on the street right now.”