On the breezy terrace of Texas de Brazil in West Shore, guests clink glasses and nibble on appetizers as cranes overhead lift steel beams into place for yet another tower in the booming MetWest complex.
Already, three new office towers are up and more are planned. Soon, Time Warner, Lennar Homes and The Container Store will open locations nearby as more than 3,000 new condos are coming on the market.
Welcome to the new center of Tampa: West Shore.
Although downtown Tampa may have more skyscrapers, the West Shore district a few miles west now has twice as many workers and twice the office space. It's tempting companies away from downtown as the go-to neighborhood for international brands moving to the city.
"The West Shore district has become a diverse community that serves the Tampa Bay region far better than downtown Tampa," said commercial real estate broker Lawrence Anderson.
For those looking to embrace the identity of Tampa, this means learning to love a landscape of mid-rise office buildings and parking lots scattered around the airport — a mini suburban city several miles from what many generations considered "downtown."
West Shore has become the largest office market in Florida, and commercial real estate broker Patrick Berman of Cushman & Wakefield considers it the most successful retail market in Tampa Bay.
As International Plaza adds more luxury stores such as Henri Bendel and Stuart Weitzman, other stores and restaurants are moving into parcels nearby.
In addition to the established restaurants like Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory and Flemming's, more eateries are opening in the row of restaurants along Boy Scout, including Kona Grill, Boizao and Texas de Brazil. And Panera Bread soon will open a new restaurant geared to commuters.
Container Store will open at West Shore Boulevard and Boy Scout. Retail brokers say the area may see a Kohl's, a new Publix, a Dick's Sporting Goods, Bed Bath & Beyond or a Trader Joe's.
The list of companies relocating or expanding in West Shore reads like the Fortune 100.
PricewaterhouseCoopers will consolidate more than 1,000 workers into 250,000 square feet — a space four times the size of an average Publix store. Outback Steakhouse's parent company will expand to 54,000 square feet, and Lennar Homes, Humana, Ricoh and Time Warner all will move into new spaces.
Even some law firms are leaving behind a mindset that they had to be near downtown courts.
That trend kicked off in 2004, when Carlton Fields moved from space downtown to a new office tower on Boy Scout Boulevard. And the Shutts & Bowen law firm recently moved from downtown to a tower across the street.
"We had all thought downtown was the only place you could be," said R. Alan Higbee, managing partner of the Tampa Shutts & Bowen office. Many of the firm's lawyers had spent 30-plus years working downtown, but clients said downtown was an inconvenient place to park and meet.
"It was enlightenment to see what's out here in West Shore and see folks around us who can refer business. And all the infrastructure was in place." That included top-tier fiber optics for video conferencing, and a slew of high-end restaurants.
Developers even put the firm's name on a sign atop the building at no extra cost.
The biggest reasons for West Shore growth recently: Accessibility and parking.
The neighborhood sits in the middle of Pinellas County to the west, the affluent neighborhoods of South Tampa to the south, the northern suburbs along the Veterans Expressway and Brandon to the east – meaning a 30 to 45 minute commute from many places in the broader Tampa area.
Parking appears to be the most popular perk.
Because of relatively wide-open space, developers can build mid-rise parking decks and offer free or subsidized parking. That's a luxury that can easily cost $100 to $200 a month in downtown Tampa.
Developers also are building for people who don't want to commute at all.
Seven new towers have added 1,800 new housing units from Hillsborough Avenue to Kennedy Boulevard. Next up, developers are planning five more projects with almost 1,600 new units, including 790 around Boy Scout Boulevard, 350 on Lois Avenue and 450 on Dale Mabry Highway.
Another reason for West Shore's growth is less obvious.
In downtown Tampa, developers must go through City Hall with their plans and face everything from the Architectural Review Commission to a series of public meetings on the site plan, height, drainage, traffic, parking and even the shadow cast by a new building.
By contrast, West Shore boosters last year pushed successfully for a zoning system that gives developers a pre-set collection of rules in advance. If they meet basic criteria, such as setbacks and building heights, approval is more administrative than political, said Ron Rotella, director of the Westshore Alliance.
That accelerated development and pushed vacancy rates to 15 percent, with rents reaching more than $24 per square foot a year, while downtown is seeing the opposite dynamic: vacancy rates close to 17 percent and rents at $20 per square foot. This is even though West Shore is adding to the 12 million square feet of space that already makes it twice the capacity of downtown.
For now, the most significant limit on West Shore's growth is sprawl itself.
Similar to far-flung suburban office parks, current construction generally is mid-rise and spread out. That means more cars will come with every new project. As construction resumes to expand I-275, more traffic will speed into the neighborhood.
Without more transit options, West Shore may fill up with cars, Rotella said, so he's pushing for more walking areas and a "circulator" system to move people about the neighborhood.
Tampa Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick complimented West Shore's development, noting the easy parking there, but she cautioned against direct comparisons.
"It's really apples and oranges," Burdick said. "Our place in the city and region is for unique, locally based, independently marketed companies and stores. There's an entrepreneurial spirit here that's done well for a while."
She pointed to new residential projects in the city, including several hundred units just north of Channelside and along Bayshore Boulevard, and the new Le Meridien hotel going into a renovated former federal courthouse. Downtown is seeing a rush of activity around the Glazer Children's Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art.
"I happen to believe that in central Tampa all the stars are starting to align," said Robert Abberger, managing director for the Florida division of Trammell Crow, which plans a 20-story, 400,000-square-foot building downtown at Florida Avenue and Whiting Street.
Though downtown hasn't seen a major new tower since 1992, Abberger said his project offers the perks of any building outside downtown: ample parking in an attached garage, a major hotel, energy-efficient systems and open floor spaces.
The project still needs an anchor tenant, he said, though "we're marching ahead on the site plan approval, and negotiating with tenants. I'm optimistic we'll be out of the ground next year."
Soon, the Channelside Bay Plaza complex could be renovated into a new shopping center, and the Riverwalk expansion now has several miles of continuous sidewalk.
Adding one other counterpoint to West Shore's success: At least one law firm has moved some people back downtown. This year, Carlton Fields rented new space there for administrative staff and visiting lawyers.