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Lofty plans in the works for The Heights development

The scaffolding is up around the historic Armature Works building on the river near downtown Tampa, but the really big construction is just about to start.

Developers of “The Heights” neighborhood on the Hillsborough River this week unveiled their preliminary plans for the 43-acre mixed-use project — complete with a public food market, an apartment complex, office space, restaurants and lengthy expansion of the Tampa Riverwalk boardwalk from the city's Waterworks park through North Boulevard.

It's an expansive project, and rehabbing the Armature Works factory space alone could easily top $10 million, developers said. But once done, the Armature space will have at least three restaurants, several bars, a cafe/bakery called Ola Cafe, an open-air entertainment stage called “The Gathering” and the 14,000-square-foot “Heights Public Market” in the style of East End in Orlando or Eastern Market in Washington.

Still, perhaps the most visible element will soar above the whole neighborhood. Developers plan to move in a massive 16-story water tower from Bartow to become the signature icon of the area.

“Our goal is to make this a walkable, urban village,” said Chas Bruck, principal of SoHo Capital, which acquired the land and is developing the area. “That means adding a real marketplace to help reconnect people with our real food supply, and each other.”

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The to-do list is long, Bruck said, but is doable, particularly as the development (and financing trend) is toward building new spaces in the urban core of American cities. On the list:

♦ Begin construction on a 300-plus unit, mid-rise apartment complex on the northeast corner of the project, called “The Pearl.”

♦ Extend and rehabilitate Palm Avenue from Highland Avenue to the river, and make it dogleg around the Armature Works building, with parts of it privately controlled to allow for street festivals.

♦ Reorient some of the streets into an angle that parallels the downtown grid, so pedestrians walking in the village will have clear views of the downtown skyline across the river.

♦ Build integrated parking into each of upwards of a dozen different apartment buildings, office towers and possibly hotels.

♦ Rehabilitate the seawall along the river, with space for new boat docks and walking paths.

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The first stage involves the Armature Works building, which has functioned over the years as everything from a maintenance barn for Tampa's streetcars, to a derelict warehouse. Workers have already replaced the roof, repaired much of the brickwork and installed new, historically accurate windows. Next comes building out the eastern half of the building (which the developer is calling Phase 1) with several elements. There will be a breakfast coffee shop and bakery called “Ola Cafe” in honor of the nearby street. The center of the building will become an open-air entertainment venue with a stage called “The Gathering,” all covered by a sweeping new arch to shelter the space. The southeast corner will have an as-yet-unnamed gastropub with beer and upscale food.

The next stage will involve building out the western half of the building, with a 14,000-square-foot retail center called “Heights Market Hall,” which will have rows of independently operated food vendors, much in the same style as foodie markets in Orlando, Washington and Seattle. Plans call for a 7,600-square-foot restaurant on the southwest corner, likely run by a third-party restaurant operator, which will overlook much of the Riverwalk.

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The neighborhood is larger thananother much heralded project downtown, spearheaded by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who already controls the Amalie Arena and has acquired about two dozen acres, including the Marriott Waterside hotel.

Bruck said he doesn't see The Heights and Vinik in competition. Rather he sees them both as tapping into a much larger social and commercial trend of people and companies rediscovering the urban core of U.S. cities, and either building fresh or adaptively reusing historic spaces.

Though Vinik has yet to reveal the details of his project, Bruck said The Heights will have a unique role in the fate of downtown Tampa. Whereas Vinik's project likely will have a modern University of South Florida medical campus building and four-star hotel, The Heights will embrace more of an indie, almost quirky ethos, with independent merchants, brick streets, wrought-iron fixtures and open-street festival spaces.

“I think there's plenty of room for both of these projects,” Brick said. “And actually I think Vinik having such success with his project only helps ours, as it draws more attention to downtown.”

One thing The Heights may have that Vinik's project (likely) won't: A water tower. Bruck secured the 160-foot historic-looking water tower from an agricultural site in Bartow, had it disassembled and relocated to Port Tampa Bay, where workers are sandblasting and repairing it. Plans may change, but the tower likely will be planted adjacent to the river. It's a decorative element, rather than a water utility, Bruck said. Still, it's a substantial structure, and the feet of the tower will spread across a 40-foot diameter base, surrounded with an open-air cafe/bar. The name of the neighborhood will be painted across the top of the watertower for all to see. “The Heights.”

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