How Tampa Turned a Dead Zone Into a Downtown

June 19, 2017

Richard Danielson | Politico

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn likes to say that when he moved here in 1980, only 600 people lived downtown—300 of them at the old Morgan Street jail.

No wonder. Downtown Tampa in 1980 had been in decline for decades. A century before, early leaders had charted its future as a deep-water port for moving cargo: phosphate mined in Central Florida, citrus grown along the Gulf Coast and cigars rolled in brick factories crowded with Cuban and Italian immigrants. To step onto the docks before World War II was to enter a realm of railyards, warehouses and oil tanks. The prettiest building in town was (and arguably still is) a minaret-topped grand hotel that a 19th-century rail baron built on the far bank of the Hillsborough River. But until the early 1960s, that gem looked back across the river at a meat-packing plant teeming with big, brazen rats.

By the time Buckhorn arrived in his 1966 Dodge Dart, Tampa’s waterfront was an industrial dead zone, some warehouses empty, others demolished and replaced by vacant lots. The city’s streetcars, which once carried 24 million passengers a year, were long gone, muscled aside by a car-centric culture that helped make the Tampa Bay area the second deadliest metro in the country in which to walk or ride a bike. Downtown retailers had closed or decamped for the suburbs. There was no way to walk along the river, literally no path from the office buildings to the waterfront, and little open space. One of the only city parks near the river was fenced and padlocked to stop vagrants from bathing in its fresh-water spring.

“We had this river running right through the heart of the city, and everybody had turned their back on it,” says Sandy Freedman, Tampa’s mayor from 1986 to 1995, when things started to change in a big way. “We blocked the views. We blocked the access. We did everything in reverse of what you want to do when you have a river or any amenity.”

Today Tampa has reinvented its downtown step by gritty step, but it hasn’t been cheap. Over the past 30 years, City Hall and the government of Hillsborough County have invested more than half a billion dollars in projects to activate the waterfront. This was Tampa’s Hail Mary pass—a multi-front push to transform a purely industrial zone into a tourist-friendly amenity and, eventually, a place to live. It required nothing less than a reversal of decades of centrifugal development pressure that had pushed people and tourist attractions miles from the city center. First came the performing arts center. Then the convention center. Then the aquarium. Then the hockey arena. Then the public subsidies for a convention hotel. Then the trolley. Then the history center. Then the new art museum. Plus a series of new parks, one where the meat-packing plant once stood, another at the fresh-water spring.

Finally, a 2.5-mile Riverwalk strung them all together. It took six mayors and 40 years, but it has opened up public access to the waterfront, connected the big public projects, and led to something new in downtown Tampa—a lot of people walking around, riding bikes and enjoying the river they had long ignored.

Together, these public investments did two things. Over the past 15 years, they put out the welcome mat for millennials and empty nesters looking to move back to the city. Tampa once competed for call centers; now it seeks to leverage assets like MacDill Air Force Base and the University of South Florida to pursue firms in defense, tech, life sciences, health care and banking services. Last year, the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership said downtown’s population had doubled in eight years to more than 8,100 people in 5,700 units, with two-thirds of downtown residents making $100,000 or more a year.

And there’s more in the pipeline. Thanks to two new players that have, for Tampa, unprecedented reach, the city is about to get a turbocharged boost of growth. Former mutual fund impresario Jeff Vinik has partnered with billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ private capital fund, Cascade Investment, on what could be Tampa’s biggest transformation yet. With the arrival of Vinik and Cascade, decades of incremental, government-led change has set the stage for two big-thinking, fast-moving, business titans who relish the chance to play with the kind of blank urban canvas that doesn’t present itself very often. If this public-private partnership succeeds, Tampa could finally make good on its longstanding ambition to be a star of the New South—not by reviving its downtown, but by reinventing it.


Today, Vinik, 58, is Tampa’s most popular pro sports team owner, most prominent philanthropist and most ambitious developer, but he never meant to come to Tampa and remake a city. Ten years ago, he says, “I could not have imagined it.”

Vinik’s first career was in Boston, where at 33 he was hired to run Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, then the nation’s biggest mutual fund. In 1996, he left Fidelity and started his own hedge fund, which posted annualized 17-percent returns before he shut it down and returned billions of dollars to investors in 2013. By then, however, Vinik had already begun to re-invent himself. In 2010, he bought the Tampa Bay Lightning for an estimated price of $110 million. It was a purchase that reflected an investor’s eye for an undervalued asset. Less than two years before, it had sold for $200 million.

A lifelong hockey fan who grew up in New Jersey and New York, Vinik remembers falling asleep at age 5 to a Rangers game on a small television in his bedroom. When he bought the team, Vinik told reporters he had been thinking about it for two years, ever since a conversation with a close friend about what was next for him during a Christmas pop music concert in Boston. He wanted something fun and loved hockey’s excitement. He sat down and Googled, “How to buy a sports team.” Then, more systematically, he started to read books on sports management. He got to know the people who ran the teams as well as National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Vinik ended up looking seriously at 10 to 15 teams. He believed it’s “critical to become part of the fabric of the community if you were going to own a sports team,” so he began thinking about places where he would want to live, and Florida’s warm weather was appealing. He looked at the Florida Panthers, but found the location of their arena, next to a toll road near the Everglades, to be isolated. In Tampa, he liked that the Lightning played in the southern end of downtown, on the other side of an elevated highway from the central business district, but near the bay. True, the arena was largely surrounded by acres of surface parking lots, but Vinik says “long-term that was a very good thing. Having said that, I had no aspirations of buying those properties or developing those properties.” Still, buying the Lightning gave Vinik control of a publicly owned arena that hosted major concerts as well as hockey games, plus the ownership of two parking lots totaling about 5½ acres on either side of the arena. Vinik says the vacant land that came with the team did not play a big role in his decision to buy the Lightning. A year or two later, another parcel right across the street came on the market for a price that Vinik found “not cheap, but reasonable.”

“It just seemed like good common sense to buy a piece of property across the street from the arena,” he says. Then a couple of more parcels became available, and he bought them, again with no bigger plan in mind. He bought more. More came on the market. Eventually Vinik spent nearly $60 million to compile about 40 mostly contiguous acres near the arena. About three-quarters of the way in, he says, “the light bulb gradually went on and we said, ‘Hmm, there are development opportunities here.’”

To pursue those opportunities, Vinik teamed up with Cascade. Vinik says he made the connection with Cascade through Tod Leiweke, the former Seattle Seahawks CEO whom Vinik hired to run the Lightning. Leiweke came to Tampa with an impressive portfolio of expertise, interests and relationships. He knew sports management. He was a natural civic leader. In both Seattle and Tampa, he helped drive efforts to address homelessness. (That wasn’t his only community issue. I once bumped into him at the launch of a police gun buyback in one of Tampa’s toughest neighborhoods.) Leiweke’s older brother Tim was president of the company that developed the L.A. Live entertainment district next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. And in Seattle, Tod Leiweke got to know key Microsoft executives, including Cascade manager Michael Larson, who is credited with building Gates’ net worth from $5 billion two decades ago to what Forbes says is $89 billion now.

“Tod knew Michael Larson,” Vinik says. “He introduced us. We had a couple of conversations, and they were interested in increasing their real estate exposure. They got it. Michael got it in terms of the potential we see here in downtown Tampa. It was a partnership (that was) meant to be.”

Together, Vinik and Cascade Investment formed Strategic Property Partners, which is developing the 40 acres around the arena, plus a couple of other key acquisitions. One is the 719-room Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. It sits on the waterfront between the hockey arena and the Tampa Convention Center. SPP bought it for $150 million and plans a major renovation.

On the other side of the arena is another Vinik-Cascade asset: Channelside Bay Plaza, a 230,000-square-foot waterfront shopping mall. Less than 20 years old, it’s a striking example of the kind of building that former Mayor Freedman talks about: one that turns its back on the water. Meant to be a festival marketplace, Channelside Bay Plaza looks inward, with few views of the shipping channel behind the building. On one of my few visits, for a night-time political rally in 2011, I spent an hour in its courtyard without realizing I could have seen the water from where I stood. Vinik plans to tear it down and start over.

But that’s just one piece of a development plan that’s mind-bogglingly ambitious. Over the next 10 years, Strategic Property Partners plans $3 billion in construction, aided by $100 million in local tax-increment financing revenues, including:
– 3,500 apartments or condominiums totaling 3 million square feet of construction.
– 2.4 million square feet of offices. That’s more than a third as big as downtown Tampa’s existing office inventory of 6.1 million square feet. • More than 1 million square feet of retail. This would be a huge increase. A downtown partnership survey last year found that downtown residents increasingly spend more on dining out and entertainment downtown, but still leave the urban core for groceries, gas, casual clothing, shoes, gifts, haircuts and items from the pharmacy.
– Two new hotels with a total of 650 rooms, or nearly a quarter of the 2,500 rooms downtown Tampa now has outside the SPP-owned Marriott Waterside.

So far, there’s little to see. SPP plans to break ground on its first phase, encompassing 4 million square feet of residential and commercial development, next spring, with its first buildings opening in 2020. To get ready, the company has 15 teams of architects and designers working on plans for 16 different city blocks. Many of the roads around the arena are torn up so larger water, sewer and storm drainage pipes can be installed. The project also will realign part of the street grid to slow down traffic and create a place that not only gives pedestrians sanctuary from Tampa’s older and statistically more deadly streets, but is also where it’s easy and fun to walk around.

Early on, Vinik and Cascade brought in new urbanist planning experts Jeff Speck and David Dixon to help shape the vision. Later, after Leiweke left Tampa for a job as the chief operating officer of the National Football League, James Nozar, 38, was hired from The JBG Companies near Washington, D.C., as CEO of SPP. Nozar came in with a range of experience in urban redevelopment—such as the Atlantic Plumbing and West Half Street mixed-use projects in Washington, D.C.—but in Tampa, where most of SPP’s holdings have until now been used for arena parking, his team has a clean slate.

“Most people would see that as an advantage, which we do, but it also makes it very challenging,” he says. Strategic Property Partners is building in an area that lacks architectural and place-making context, and it aims to create something that from the start feels like a neighborhood, not a shopping mall. It helps that the mix of residential, retail, cultural, office and entertainment will be evenly balanced, Nozar says. That should make it possible for many residents to get up, walk to the gym, grab coffee, duck back home to change, walk to work, get a meal or two during the day, and go to a hockey game or concert—all without ever needing a car.

For context, Nozar and SPP director of development Bryan Moll, another JBG alum, have looked at Tampa’s older neighborhoods, including Ybor City, the city’s historic Latin quarter and the home of its cigar-making industry about three-quarters of a mile from downtown. To enhance the pedestrian experience, they’ve focused on the ground floors of their buildings—their scale, how they interact with the public space as well as the pedestrian’s need for a variety of experience and—crucial in Florida—shade. The new project will include new parks, and one main street will have a double row of mature trees along one side, a single row along the other. SPP is building a centralized air-conditioning plant for the entire district, which is expected to help drive energy efficiency, something that’s rare in commercial developments, though more common in large campus projects like universities and healthcare facilities. For SPP, it makes sense because of the project’s single ownership and long-term focus. It also frees rooftops for dog parks, swimming pools, restaurants and green space. One 300-foot-tall office building will have planted terraces or ledges on every floor, plus a green roof. An apartment building will be topped with 10 feet of soil on its roof so mature trees can grow there.

Along with a name, one thing that Vinik and Cascade have not announced is a tenant list. But Vinik says the company has a long list of prospective tenants. Because they are self-financing, Vinik and Cascade do not have to worry as much about an economic downturn, about repaying construction loans or about building quickly, leasing up and selling out.

“There is no intention of flipping here,” Vinik says. “We’re looking very long term. We believe the real value creation in the district occurs over five to 10 years as it becomes one of the best places to live, work and play in, hopefully, the Southeast.”


In 1985, business boosters took to calling Tampa “America’s Next Great City,” but the facts on the ground often seemed to lag behind the brand. As “New South” cities like Charlotte and Atlanta soared, it was hard to see whether any of Tampa’s big bets would pay off. The performing arts center, convention center and aquarium all struggled in their early years, and there was a ton of second-guessing.

In her nearly nine years as mayor, Sandy Freedman did a lot of building, but she wanted a good city with affordable housing and healthy neighborhoods as much as a “great” one with an impressive skyline and upbeat marketing. (Her signature accomplishment, getting local banks to put up $67 million to build or rehab thousands of affordable homes, got her into the conversation when President-elect Bill Clinton was considering candidates for secretary of housing and urban development.) So she tended to have a more skeptical outlook than the Chamber of Commerce. Once, when I asked her about that “America’s Next Great City” slogan, she rolled her eyes.

And early on, Freedman didn’t even want to build the convention center. Sitting on the City Council she had voted against every single contract to buy land for the site. It was too hemmed in by an expressway on one side, she thought, and the river on the other. Supporters talked about how the city could expand it in the future by driving pilings into the riverbed, but she didn’t believe that for a moment (and, in fact, it hasn’t happened). But after the city spent $27 million on land, she couldn’t think of a way to kill it, so she went ahead with the project.

The Florida Aquarium was next, and it took a push that would have impressed Robert Moses. The aquarium was long planned for Harbour Island, a mixed-used development created across a shipping channel from downtown, but the developer told Freedman the project’s parking wouldn’t fit there after all. So Freedman says she called the port director and, although she wasn’t on the port authority board and therefore was not his direct boss, told him to come to her office in an hour, because she was holding a news conference to announce that the aquarium was headed to a waterfront site the port owned.

“He said, ‘What?’ He was apoplectic. He really was. He was apoplectic for a year or two after that,” Freedman says. But “they had all that land that was on the water, and I had just come from seeing Baltimore,” which had transformed its Inner Harbor using an aquarium as centerpiece. “There’s a lot of Baltimore in all of this. It wasn’t rocket science. It had been done before, and you learn from the best. That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made even though it was so tough at the beginning.”

Then came a deal for a downtown hockey arena. That brought in the county government, a first at that time. County Commissioner Ed Turanchik was a vocal proponent of a downtown site. What also made it possible, Freedman says, was private sector support. The developer of Harbour Island agreed to put up nearly $9 million to acquire the rights to a key piece of property on the understanding he would get the money back when the city and county put the deal together.

Freedman also tore down a bare-bones auditorium that had been built in the 1960s where the old rat-infested meat-packing plant once stood. Finally, she tried to put together a deal for a big hotel to help the convention center, which was built without all the meeting space it needed. But the plan was complicated and controversial, and it fell apart toward the end of her second term. Her successor, Dick Greco, would provide the public subsidies that closed the deal for the Marriott.

Still, of all the projects, the Riverwalk appears to have had the most far-reaching impact—no surprise, given the track record of river walks from San Antonio to Milwaukee for creating recreational space and economic development. “This relatively small amount of money that we’ve spent, I think, will pay dividends 10-fold over time, more so than, like, the [performing arts center] or the aquarium,” Buckhorn says. “They’re important, they add to the mix, and they’re key anchors, but they’re not game-changers. I think the Riverwalk is a game-changer.”

Pam Iorio, Tampa’s mayor from 2003 to 2011, remembers how not having something like the Riverwalk undercut even the joy of the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup in 2004. That night, she says, “we all spilled out of the arena. It was one of those big, group hug kind of times where everybody was hugging each other and jumping up and down. I realized, right there, right then, that this crowd had no place to go and celebrate.”

The next morning, Iorio told her senior staff that the next time Tampa won a championship, it needed a public space where people could take the party. By the time she left office in 2011, Iorio had finished a massive upgrade and expansion of the riverfront park, known as Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, that Freedman had created, arranged a waterfront site for the Tampa Bay History Center and completed a big chunk of the Riverwalk. Curtis Hixon now serves as the front yard for residents from two 30-story apartment towers built across the street during Iorio’s administration and hosts art shows and concerts.

Buckhorn opened the last key segment of the Riverwalk in 2015, and the impact was immediate and dramatic. Just three years before, the city had hosted the Republican National Convention, which did a poor job of showcasing the city. Curtis Hixon Park was commandeered for private parties inside a massive tent, and the Secret Service security footprint was so vast and heavy that much of the Riverwalk was cut off from public use. In contrast, when the College Football Playoff brought its national championship to Tampa in January, the Riverwalk played a key role in the city’s bid. The game was played at Raymond James Stadium, about five miles northwest of downtown Tampa, but the Riverwalk allowed most game-related activities to be held along the downtown waterfront. There were free concerts with Usher and Eric Paslay at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and, a little more than half a mile away, a fan experience expo at the convention center. The Riverwalk connected the two, allowing fans to walk from one event to the other. Local organizers lined the route with pop-up food and drink vendors and smaller stages playing live music, plus docks where high-rollers could tie up their yachts and fans could walk by and gawk at them.

The Riverwalk started with a modest effort to sell individual planks to residents, but over the course of four decades it required quite a bit more: $33 million, mostly in public spending, including a $10.9 million transportation grant from the Obama administration. In its bid for the grant, the city said the Riverwalk would help stimulate economic development.

It has. At the north end of the Riverwalk, Buckhorn decided to recycle the fenced-up park next to the city’s old waterworks. At the same time, he put out a request for proposals to renovate the 100-year-old pump house. The winning bid came from Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, whose family founded what is Florida’s oldest restaurant, the Columbia, in Ybor City in 1905. Gonzmart was born four blocks from the pump house, and his grandparents lived five blocks from it, but the building was so obscure and forgotten that he never noticed it. Still, he had seen renovated warehouses and waterfronts in Montreal and Vancouver, and he wanted to try to do something similar in Tampa. In 2009, he opened a cafe version of his family’s flagship restaurant inside the new Tampa Bay History Center at the southern end of the Riverwalk. “My father always told me when there was an opportunity along the waterfront not to even hesitate,” Gonzmart says.

Gonzmart originally planned to spend $1.4 million to open a seafood grille and craft brewery inside the old pump house. He ended up spending more like $6 million, but he opened Ulele as Tampa’s hottest restaurant. Next door, Buckhorn spent $7.4 million more turning a dead space into a busy park with a splash play area, dog park and outdoor stage. Together, Gonzmart says, the two attract 1,500 to 2,000 people a day. Ulele stays booked well in advance, and although Gonzmart declines to discuss its revenues, he says they exceed his projections, and that they rose 14 percent the second year and are up 28 percent above that this year.

Gonzmart’s is the biggest investment so far along the river, but not the only one. A Tampa dinner-cruise operator has launched a regular water taxi service, and concessionaires at the convention center rent out water bikes and small boats. The city also has issued a request for proposals to put a restaurant at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. This week, Gonzmart submitted a bid, but so did six others.

Recycling fallow property has been a signature achievement during Buckhorn’s two terms as mayor. Along with pairing the city’s renovation at Water Works Park with Ulele, he has struck deals to sell one city-owned block next to City Hall and another near the performing arts center for high-rise development. And he attracted a company that specializes in renovating historic properties for a $26 million transformation of Tampa’s vacant federal courthouse, a Beaux-Arts jewel built in 1905, into a Le Méridien boutique hotel.

When Vinik starting buying parking lots around the hockey arena, there was a lot of speculation that he might be assembling a land for another big project: a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays play across Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, but their fan base there lacks the corporate support typical of Major League Baseball. The team has long wanted to explore the stadium market in Tampa, and is doing so now, but it is not looking at the land Vinik and his partners assembled.

That’s because Vinik lined up a different anchor for his project, one that Buckhorn likes to say is “bigger than baseball.”


In August or September, the University of South Florida plans to break ground on a $164.7 million medical school and cardiovascular research institute on an acre of land Vinik and Cascade donated to the university at their waterfront project.

Neither Vinik nor USF President Judy Genshaft recall who first suggested moving the medical school downtown. USF is about 10 miles north of downtown, putting its medical school more than 25 minutes from its teaching hospital, which is on the edge of downtown. (It’s the only top-100 medical school in the country to be so far away from its hospital.) For years, USF had struggled with this distance, at one point even exploring the possibility of building a hospital on campus.

What Vinik and Genshaft recall is that they talked a lot soon after he bought the Lightning. Initially, she says, the conversations touched on whether USF doctors might assist the hockey team, or whether the Lightning had opportunities for USF students majoring in sports management. But Genshaft believes universities need to be economic engines for their regions, so she is active in virtually every economic development initiative in the Tampa Bay area. Soon enough, the conversation turned to the idea of moving the medical school to the Vinik-Cascade project, and a deal was quickly made.

However it came about, the 13-story Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute, scheduled to open in late 2019, is expected to help both parties. Already, USF administrators say, the move is helping them recruit both faculty and students. Applications for USF’s medical school are up 50 percent in three years. This year, nearly 6,400 applicants are vying for 170 spots in next fall’s first-year class. USF says its medical school applicants also have the highest average MCAT scores of any Florida university, a sign that it’s not only attracting more applicants period, but more of the best applicants available.

For Vinik and Cascade, having the USF med school as an anchor in his company’s project will help seed the place with an estimated 2,275 faculty, researchers, staff and students—in short, a tower full of highly skilled and highly prized young professionals, and will help attract companies in health, science and technology. This is the kind of partnership that has helped remake cities such as Roanoke and Winton-Salem, both of which drew substantial investments from nearby universities and research institutions. And it’s the kind of city-university partnership that Buckhorn has seen elsewhere, especially Pittsburgh, and has always wanted to bring to Tampa. USF’s project, which is being built with about $112 million in state funds (USF is raising the rest privately), will represent the latest public investment in Tampa’s waterfront. Vinik says long-range commitments like that make a project like his possible.

“I’ve been called a visionary,” he says. “The real visionaries were the people who 20 years ago put the arena in the south part of downtown, the convention center, the aquarium, the history center. Those were the visionaries. It just happened to take 10 to 20 years for somebody and an organization to come along to actually start realizing that vision.”