1. Opinion

Editorial: An ambitious vision for Tampa's Channel District

This rendering shows a proposal for a public park in the center of the Channel District development. The plan would remake 45 acres in the area.
This rendering shows a proposal for a public park in the center of the Channel District development. The plan would remake 45 acres in the area.
Published Aug. 13, 2015

The plan unveiled Thursday to redevelop downtown Tampa's Channel District marks another exciting chapter for Florida's third-largest city. The move would bring residents, energy and billions of new dollars into the area and reconnect a modern and growing downtown with historic Ybor City. Though the plan is ambitious and would be rolled out over years, it would cement Tampa's identity as a waterfront destination and accelerate its transformation into a dynamic urban village.

Port Tampa Bay announced it would remake 45 acres of cruise ship terminals, old dock space and parking lots into a mixed-use development of high-rise residential towers, a marina, commercial space, new cruise ship operations, a waterfront park and other public venues. The plan would transform the eastern side of downtown from the Florida Aquarium north toward Ybor City. All told, the public investment from the port and property taxes designated for the area could reach $200 million, with another $1.5 billion for residential, hotel, retail and office projects coming from the private sector.

This is the sort of grand-scale vision that downtown needs, with new apartment towers already popping up and with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik embarking on a $1 billion redevelopment on 40 acres he controls immediately to the west. Taken together, the two projects are complementary in size and scale, with both looking to draw new residents, businesses and tourists to the most expansive stretches of Tampa's downtown waterfront.

The port plan fills a huge and critical gap on the city center's eastern flank. It would give residents of the new high-rises already there new public space and attractions to enjoy. Cruise ship passengers would see a newer, prettier and more active urban landscape. And by connecting downtown with Ybor City, the port would be strengthening the public investment made years ago in the touristy Ybor district. The build-out also would push new spending into the older neighborhoods that serve as a gateway to downtown from the north.

The plan is also a positive signal that the port will not waste its time or resources looking to attract new mega-cruise ships that cannot fit under the Sunshine Skyway. That idea involves two bad options: Building a new and higher Skyway, or building a new cruise terminal off the southern coast of Pinellas County. This plan markets Tampa as a niche destination for midsized ships, a course that is much more practical and environmentally friendly.

Thursday's announcement capped an incredible year for the Channel District, as the city, Vinik and the port put the Channelside Bay Plaza entertainment center on solid footing, announced the remake of 85 acres on or near the downtown waterfront, and won approval to build a new downtown medical school for the University of South Florida. It will take plenty of work and leadership to make these like-minded visions become reality. But the port plan adds another flourish of excitement at a promising time. It offers a bold, new experience to the downtown urban landscape while honoring Tampa's waterfront history — the very model for how the past and the future should work together.