TAMPA — From his seventh-floor condo in the Grand Central at Kennedy, Vance Arnett can stroll to downtown restaurants or ride his bicycle for trips farther afield like Ybor City or a grocery run to Duckweed Urban Market downtown.
Arnett and his wife, Jane Arnett, abandoned the suburbs four years ago. Life in the Channel District, he likes to joke, is like an assisted-living facility for the fiercely independent.
“As you get older there are certain things that you want to be close to, like excellent health care,” said Arnett, 68. “You want to have alternatives other than the car to get to a grocery store, to get to restaurants and bars. People congregate here, and those services are brought to them.”
Arnett is one of thousands who already call downtown Tampa home, its new residential towers and loft apartments bringing together millennials, middle-aged professionals and retiring baby boomers. The neighborhoods envisioned on architects’ drawing boards are now being knitted together by this eclectic mix of residents.
The result could hardly be further from the big house and yard, two-kid, two-car lifestyle many left behind. For many in downtown Tampa, a daily commute and 9-to-5 workday no longer hold sway. Car ride services like Uber and bike shares rival car ownership as a way to get around. And dogs, not children, are the social glue of the community, with pets outnumbering children and dog parks a major social hub.
“You’re living in a community with a different compelling rhythm,” said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “I think it’s the closeness and the opportunity to be in touch with all different people and making the most of the same environment.”
The predominance of millennials and baby boomers in downtown Tampa was reflected in a 2014 study of the downtown core and Channel District conducted by the partnership.
The 25-to-34 age group made up 32 percent of the area’s population, while people age 55 and older comprised almost 25 percent.
It’s an affluent population, too, with 90 percent boasting annual household incomes more than the Hillsborough County median of $49,600, and 65 percent of households earning above $100,000.
Roughly 44 percent work in downtown Tampa or from home and are far more likely than their suburban peers to use buses, water taxis and the streetcar to get around. Almost 98 percent make some use of the Riverwalk, and 95 percent attend events in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which is emerging as the city’s living room.
“It’s really an opportunity to live in a way our population hasn’t lived,” Burdick said.
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Nick Buchanan is a long way from his suburban childhood home in Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle.
He has lived for five years in a two-story, open-plan loft at Victory Lofts in the Channel District. Many of the surrounding buildings were still construction sites and the neighborhood was something of a cultural desert when he moved in.
But slowly, the area has grown with the addition of restaurants and bars, the latest being the District Tavern, a gastrobar on the ground floor of Skyhouse, a 23-story apartment tower on 12th Street.
Now, he cannot imagine living anywhere else. He and his partner, Jeff Gibson, are planning to buy a bigger apartment just down the street.
The 31-year-old real estate agent fits the bill for the archetypal millennial. He eats out almost all the time, dining at local establishments within walking distance like Bamboozle and Cena, or turning to the streetcar or Uber to dine farther away.
He and Gibson downsized to owning just one car and a scooter they share. An Uber ride home from restaurants on Ashley Drive or in Ybor City costs them just $5.
Smartphone and laptop in hand, Buchanan arrived for a recent business meeting dressed in a jacket, and shirt replete with bow tie, and white chinos hanging an inch or two above red loafers worn without socks.
The meeting is at Victory Coffee, a coffee house on North 12th Street regarded as a staple of the Channel District social fabric. At different times of the day, it’s common to see five to 10 people with laptop computers open using the coffee house as an office, Buchanan said.
Millenials are more likely to be self-employed or to freelance, according to Freelancer.com. That means they often work when they want.
“You have entire days when everyone is on a different schedule,” Buchanan said. “Businesses thrive that way. They want peak business more than three times a day.”
Buchanan is among a handful of Channel District residents who volunteers his time to help grow events in his neighborhood.
He helped organize Art on 12th, a quarterly event for local artists to showcase their work, and was also recently appointed to serve on the Channel District Community Redevelopment Agency board, the group that recommends projects to the Tampa City Council to help improve the community.
He loves that the events throw together young and old, retirees and young professionals.
“We all blend together; it’s what a real neighborhood should be,” Buchanan said.
After his meeting, Buchanan went on a tour of the Channel District, leaving his expensive laptop unattended on the table in the coffee house.
“They know me; they’ll keep an eye on it,” he said.
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The courtyard at Grand Central is arguably the heart of The Channel District’s social scene.
During the day, Ginger Beard Coffee operates out of the Pour House bar selling high-end brewed coffee, espresso and komboucha, a sweetened tea. Close by are Cena, an Italian diner, City Dog Cantina and Maloney’s Irish Pub.
Every third Thursday is Flicks and Food Trucks, an event with a large screen to show movies or Tampa Bay Lighting games. Madison Street, which runs parallel to Grand Central, is lined with food trucks and blocked off to traffic.
Some of the trucks sell standard street fare, like sliders and hot dogs. But grilled mahi tacos and an Indian food truck provide a more upmarket alternative.
Some of the restaurants and bars are pet-friendly, a necessity in a community where almost one quarter of residents have a dog. It’s not uncommon to see a pug on a bar stool in the Pour House.
Josh Glass, one of two bearded owners of Ginger Beard Coffee, said residents use their dogs as a way to make friends.
“I knew everyone’s dog’s name before I knew their name,” Glass said. “It’s a good social tool. It kick-starts conversations, and it’s easier than having a kid.”
Dogs are such a part of life in Grand Central that its two pool decks have dog-walking areas surfaced with rubberized mulch.
Residents who have dogs must provide a DNA sample of their pet for a program called PooPrints that identifies owners who do not clean up after their dogs.
While dogs proliferate, few children live downtown, with just 13 percent of households reporting at least one child, according to the partnership study.
That number is no surprise to Chris Leinberger, a professor and chairman of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C.
“Millennials are postponing getting married and having children and some are forgetting to have children,” he said.
Demographic data shows that over the next 20 years, only 14 percent of new households will include children, Leinberger said.
The regeneration of Channelside and downtown Tampa follows a path that other big metropolitan areas have already embarked upon, he said.
Tampa Bay ranked last among the 30 biggest metropolitan areas in a 2008 study that Leinberger conducted measuring how much office and retail space was located in urban communities.
By 2014, Tampa Bay had risen to 27th place, and he expects that to rise again when he updates the study this year.
Tampa’s growing downtown is likely to expand even faster with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik spearheading a $2 billion redevelopment of 40 acres around the Channel District.
The development was spurred by entertainment options like the Amalie Arena, theaters, restaurants and bars. A new ballpark wouldn’t hurt either.
“All that urban entertainment crates a ‘there’ there,” Leinberger said. “What you see follow are rental housing and for-sale housing, and once you have the rooftops, that’s when you get the grocery store.”
That grocery store will be a 38,000-square-foot Publix, part of a 21-story high-rise called the Channel Club at East Twiggs Street and North Meridian Avenue scheduled to open in 2017.
It can’t come soon enough for Margaret Taylor, a county judge in Hillsborough who moved to the Channel District in 2014 after a divorce.
That meant leaving a 6,000-square-foot home with a pool in Carrollwood to a 2,500-square-foot loft apartment in the Channel District that she shares with daughter Meg.
Living in the Channel District meant saying goodbye to her one-hour commute to the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse on Twiggs Street, where she hears misdemeanor crimes.
Now she can walk to work and to the gym, where she takes spin classes and works out up to five times a week. She and Meg walk to a local ice cream parlor and to see gigs or hockey at Amalie Arena.
She describes her neighbors as urban, artsy professionals. Uber drivers are so often in the area she rarely has to wait long.
“I absolutely love it,” she said.
Downsizing to a smaller home meant paring down her life. For the first year, she rented a storage unit for furniture and dining sets that she inherited from her family.
After a year passed without a single trip to the storage unit, she decided the stuff had to go.
“It was very liberating; I realized I don’t need this stuff,” she said. “The Salvation Army got a lot of crystal.”