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West River development in Tampa comes to life with opening of new towers

The developers behind the project promise to bring Publix to the neighborhood, which has long been considered a food desert.
Howard W. Blake High Jazz band leads guests to tour the new towers during the grand opening of The Boulevards at West River in Tampa  on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
Howard W. Blake High Jazz band leads guests to tour the new towers during the grand opening of The Boulevards at West River in Tampa on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 1
Updated Oct. 1

TAMPA — Jessica Heaton and her husband Benjamin Marcado applied for affordable housing three years ago, when they moved to the Tampa Bay area from Massachusetts.

They settled in Spring Hill initially, but got an email in April saying they had been approved for a unit in Tampa.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Heaton remembers asking Marcado when they got the acceptance email. “The bad news is we have to wait till July or August. But the good news is we got the apartment.”

The couple were among the first to move into Tampa’s West River development, which opened three new apartment towers this summer. The urban housing project, located across the river from downtown and north of Interstate 275, is part of the Tampa Housing Authority’s effort to revitalize an area once home to the city’s first public housing project, North Boulevard Homes.

Related: West Tampa opens first West River apartment complex

“It was definitely time to redevelop,” said David Iloanya, director of the housing authority’s office of real estate redevelopment.

Iloanya said the new towers are a stark contrast to what was there before. North Boulevard Homes was deteriorating and abandoned, he said, describing it as a place where Tampa Bay’s “promises of a good life couldn’t be redeemed.” But now it can be, he said.

Residents from the former housing project have priority access to the new units at the Boulevards at West River, three mixed-use buildings which offer both affordable housing and market-rate apartments with a total of 371 units. One tower offers only affordable housing and the other two offer 80 percent.

The interior of a one bedroom, one bathroom unit at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
The interior of a one bedroom, one bathroom unit at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Forty-two former residents returned to the corner of North Oregon Avenue and Union Street, according to Related Group, the development company partnering with the city on the West River project. Approximately 12 percent typically come back after being relocated, said Leroy Moore, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Tampa Housing Authority.

The towers offer one- to three-bedroom apartments ranging from 600 to 1,200 square feet. Apartments come with a full kitchen, an in-unit washer and dryer and wood floors. Each building has a library with free computer access, a fitness center and a game room.

There’s also a park in the works with preserved, century-old oak trees and a fitness obstacle course — part of a collaboration with the NFL Alumni Chapter — which will have a 40-yard-dash field, plus agility equipment like floating boards and ninja steps.

“We’re not just creating housing,” said Jorge Pérez, founder and CEO of Related Group. “We’re creating neighborhoods.”

An outdoor area and another tower being built at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
An outdoor area and another tower being built at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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There’s been strong speculation of Publix coming to the West River neighborhood for months. But developers, Publix and city officials wouldn’t confirm if the Florida-based grocer plans to open a store. The area has long been considered a “food desert”, where there isn’t easy access to grocery options that sell fresh foods.

Developers said Wednesday they are committed to changing that.

“We’re going to bring Publix,” Pérez said at the opening event.

Publix first needs to get a permit for a store, said Albert Milo, president of Related’s mixed-income division. And if all goes to plan, the shop would be located along Main Street and North Boulevard across from Blake High School.

In addition to the three new towers, the Mary Bethune High Rise Apartments and the Renaissance at the West River site offers 310 affordable housing units for seniors. Several more buildings will be breaking ground soon, Milo said.

Related is working on a fourth Boulevard tower and the Boulevard Villas totaling 134 additional affordable housing units plus four buildings for the Canopy at West River Towers with more than 400 mixed-income units, according to development manager Peter Van Warner. Further out in planning are two unnamed lots set to house approximately 200 affordable housing units and 350 market-rate apartments.

A game room inside The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
A game room inside The Boulevards at West River in Tampa pictured on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The demand for affordable housing is evident, Mayor Jane Castor said. Rent is rising faster in the Tampa Bay area than any other metro in the U.S. this year, according to real estate data company CoStar Group.

“As prices for housing continue to increase, and the supply is diminishing, we have got to move faster and faster and faster,” Castor said.

The city of Tampa set a goal of 10,000 affordable housing units by the end of 2027, Castor said. The West River development project would make up about a 1,000 of those.

More than 7,000 families are on the Tampa Housing Authority’s waitlist, said Ben Dachepalli, a Tampa Housing Authority commissioner.

Jessica Heaton, 46, and Benjamin Mercado, 49, pose for a portrait in the patio of their new apartment at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
Jessica Heaton, 46, and Benjamin Mercado, 49, pose for a portrait in the patio of their new apartment at The Boulevards at West River in Tampa on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Heaton and Marcado, the couple who just moved in with their two teenage children, said they were amazed at how easy it was to walk from their new home to see Ed Sheeran perform for free at the NFL kickoff. The balcony of their new apartment has views of the Hillsborough River and downtown Tampa.

Heaton said she’s never lived in such a luxurious apartment before.

“It is such a good feeling to live in one of these.”