TAMPA — It’s a well-worn chestnut that Mayor Bob Buckhorn has trotted out on the campaign trail, in front of civic boosters and, well, anyone who will listen.
When he left the city council in 2003, only 600 people lived in downtown Tampa. “And 300 of those were in the Morgan Street jail,” he quips.
Now, more than 8,000 people live in the heart of the city. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is planning $1 billion in mixed-use construction. Port Tampa Bay has an even more ambitious $1.7 billion proposal.
And there are plans for as many as 16 more high-rise or mid-rise residential complexes in the downtown vicinity, which could more than double the number of housing units to nearly 12,000.
To borrow a Hollywood line about an ambitious project: If they build them, will downtown dwellers come?
“The demand is there,” Buckhorn insists. “It’s all building off each other. All the pieces are connected and linked. It’s a different world now. Tampa’s become the place to be in the state of Florida, particularly for young college graduates.”
Buckhorn and revitalization advocates have been focused on building a residential base in what had been the land of banks and law firms, where the sidewalks were once deserted by 5:30 p.m.
A planning team was brought in by the city to develop the InVision Tampa Center City Plan, which was approved as a blueprint for the downtown area in 2013. It called for liveable places, connected people and the proverbial live-work-play community.
The city reconfigured its permitting processes to make it more welcoming to developers.
Meanwhile, the millennial generation bloomed into the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, bringing their penchant for urban living. And they had company.
“The amazing thing to me that seems to be proving itself out is what we started to see during the condo boom — everyone was speculating that people would move back to the urban cores. And we’re starting to see that’s what is happening,” said Truett Gardner, a Tampa land use and zoning lawyer who has been involved in such projects as the Crescent Bayshore, SkyHouse Channelside and others currently in the works.
“It’s become very alluring for millennials, and I think the surprise has been the empty-nesters who want to move to the urban core. That’s what’s making the legs of this cycle continue to go.”
That sentiment is backed up by figures compiled by the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which found that the biggest demographic of downtown residents, 32 percent, are those age 25 to 34. The third-biggest group is those age 55 to 64, at 18 percent.
The downtown renaissance began in the 2000s in the Channel District, where early bohemians converted the warehouses along the waterfront into funky lofts. The 30-story Towers of Channelside sprung up nearby, as did a slew of new loft-style housing.
The boom came west with construction of the 33-story SkyPoint condominiums and 35-story Element apartments in the heart of downtown.
SkyHouse Channelside, which has 23 stories and 320 units, just hosted a grand opening.
A groudbreaking was held last week for an eight-story, 300-unit apartment complex on the site of the former Amazon Hose and Rubber warehouse in the Channel District. More apartments, 350 in a 30-plus-story tower known as AER in the Arts District, will rise between the Straz Center and the Hillsborough River.
A new development for the former Trump Tower site on the river was announced last month; that calls for 52 stories and 203 luxury residences. Also, a Miami developer has purchased the headquarters of The Tampa Tribune on the river’s west bank and plans an eight-story, 400-unit apartment complex.
The historic Kress block and neighboring Grant block in the city’s center are also slated for residential development, with details to come.
“I don’t think there’s any risk of not filling them because of estimates of population growth,” said Christine Burdick, chief executive of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “Tampa’s growing faster than any other city in Florida. We are attracting much more in-migration. The market is continuing to be strong.”
Burdick noted that the 6,000-plus residential sites planned for downtown aren’t all appearing at once. Many are years from completion; Vinik’s timeline is perhaps a decade, the port’s, 15 years.
But a noted Florida real estate observer isn’t as enthusiastic about the residential construction boom as the Tampa home team.
“It hasn’t worked out well in the past. All we have to do is look back seven to 10 years to see how devastating an oversaturation of product, along with a change in the economy, can affect construction,” said Jack McCabe, chief executive of McCabe Research & Consulting of Deerfield Beach and an independent housing analyst.
McCabe is among those who expect a 2017 recession — maybe sooner — and said developments recently completed or coming out of the ground stand a chance to succeed. But he predicted that just a third of the myriad Tampa residential projects on the drawing board actually will get built.
“I would just be very cautionary about the timing right now,” McCabe said. “In real estate, ‘location, location, location’ is always the big thing. Here in Florida in this decade, I would argue it’s ‘timing, timing, timing.’ It’s really a crucial and important factor in the success of these developments.”
One key to the success of the city’s downtown push will be luring a corporate headquarters with high-profile, high-paying jobs. Vinik has made it a priority, and last week, Rick Homans, chief executive of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., told county commissioners five Fortune 500 companies are being courted to come to the area.
Vinik indicated the significance of such anchors when he donated land as part of his plan for the University of South Florida medical school to relocate to downtown Tampa. He is also planning a private medical tower adjacent to the medical school.
“We are encouraged by everyone’s bullishness on Tampa’s downtown as a growth market for residential real estate,” said Bill Wickett, a spokesman for Vinik’s development group. “We clearly agree and envision a more robust and prosperous urban core in our not-too-distant future.”
There is another indication that Tampa’s downtown is gaining momentum.
The partnership study showed that downtown residents are overwhelmingly likely to recommend downtown to their peers as a place to live; 98 percent of respondents said they’d do so. And of those who work downtown but don’t live there, 42 percent expressed interest in living downtown within the next five years.
Buckhorn said efforts to “create a buzz” surrounding downtown Tampa are paying off. Last week, Money magazine ranked Tampa as the best place to live in the southeastern United States.
“When I came into this office in 2011, we were losing intellectual capital to Charlotte, to Raleigh-Durham. If we were going to be competitive for those millennials, we had to change the perception of Tampa. In particular, at the street level, literally and figuratively, we had to build a downtown they would want to be a part of.
“Tampa’s best days are yet to come,” the mayor said. “We’ve turned the corner. We’ve emerged out of the wreckage of the recession. Tampa’s story is the story of the renaissance of an American city that has just begun to fulfill its potential.”