The city of Tampa has taken another critical step to further the renaissance of the downtown waterfront. Officials recently solicited bids for a parcel of city property that would further connect the growing downtown with neighboring West Tampa. The project has enormous potential — for jobs, affordable housing, and awakening Tampa’s historic appeal — and the city should aim high in selecting a developer and a winning proposal.
The city solicited proposals in October to remake an 18-acre tract called the “Rome Yard," a parcel overlooking the Hillsborough River south of Columbus Drive that the city had long used as a maintenance and storage ground. The city hopes to transform the property into a mixed-use development with apartments, shops and offices and other amenities. It also would serve as the northern anchor to the West River development, a broader public-private initiative to convert former public housing into a new community.
Former Mayor Bob Buckhorn solicited proposals late in his term, but wisely pulled back soon before leaving office in 2019 to let the incoming mayor put her imprint on the project. Mayor Jane Castor now faces an economy ravaged by the coronavirus and reeling with uncertainty. Still, the city has every reason to remain encouraged. The urban market is still strong, mixed-use is still appealing, and Tampa’s riverfront — only blocks away — has become a hub of new restaurants, parks and outdoor activities. With researchers reporting strong gains on a coronavirus vaccine, the trick now is to hold out and hope for a wider recovery sometime soon. And any development would take time, anyway. The city was right to push forward in seeking bids, as evidenced by the dozens of interested parties who attended an informational session last month. The proposals are due Dec. 15.
The Rome Yard is prime real estate, on a bluff overlooking the river’s northern slope to downtown. The city is open to a range of possibilities, though it wants any development to serve a wide public benefit. That includes an accommodation for bus, bike and pedestrian traffic, set-asides for locally-owned small businesses and a workforce training center and design elements that recognize West Tampa’s historic Latin heritage. The city also wants at least 40 percent of the residential units reserved for those making no more than 140 percent of area median income, or $93,660 for a family of four; at least 20 percent of the units are to be reserved for those earning 80 percent of the area median income, or $53,500 for a family of four. This could be a template for further leveraging public land to make urban living more affordable.
The project is the culmination of years of solid planning, and Castor is right to recognize the value of this property. Residents and business owners in the area are involved in shaping the development, which speaks to the inclusive vision for this area that Castor has in mind. The city needs to keep this bullish attitude and find a developer who shares this commitment to expanding and enlivening the urban core.
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