When Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning and its NHL arena in 2010, he got a couple of extra pieces of land as part of the deal. Like the arena, which is surrounded by parking lots and cut off from the rest of the city’s downtown by an expressway, the other lots were similarly isolated in a part of town that had seen better days. It was something of a dead zone. But it was also a blank slate.
Vinik began acquiring more lots in the area, and after years of planning and construction, a transformation is nearing completion. More than 5 million square feet of development is underway across 56 acres, with 10 new buildings rising, including housing, offices, and retail. They’re all connected by a new central corridor that prioritizes pedestrians. Developed by a partnership between Vinik and Cascade Investment, the investment fund owned by Bill Gates, the project is named after that central spine, Water Street, with the hope of making it a new urban center in the car-oriented city.
“The goals were ambitious from the beginning, to see this project as a catalyst to redefine urban life in Tampa and also to use the property as a way to stitch together what had been very disconnected portions of downtown,” says Brad Cooke, a vice president at Strategic Property Partners, the project’s developer. “It was a unique opportunity because we didn’t really have to displace anything or anybody.”
After almost a decade in the works, the project’s first elements are gradually opening. The first building, a J.W. Marriott hotel, opened in December, and the first office building and residential project will be finished in March. Cooke says a new building will open pretty much every other month going forward, and that this first big phase of the project will be largely complete by early 2022, with buildings designed by architects including Gensler, CookFox, and Morris Adjmi. For phase two, feasibility studies are now underway on infill development within the current area, and a larger potential expansion is being master-planned.
In a way, the project is taking the area back to its early 20th-century roots, according to architect David Manfredi of the design firm Elkus Manfredi, which led the project’s planning. “[Back then], it was a residential neighborhood. It had a fine grid of streets and alleys, like you would expect, but it all disappeared,” Manfredi says. “It was really the introduction of the interstate highway system that cut it off from the rest of the city, and all that grid disappeared. Except for a few important streets.”
One of those is Water Street. Part of the planning process was a complete redesign of the street grid to make it the area’s central corridor leading to a waterfront park and connecting to the hockey arena, a history center, and the convention center. The plan also involved breaking apart the superblocks that had formed in the area since the 1950s. Elkus Manfredi, along with the landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, reconfigured the grid to be more easily accessible on foot, with smaller blocks and generous space for pedestrians. The centerpiece of this effort is the 45-foot-wide section on Water Street based on the Dutch planning concept of the woonerf, a hybrid road that allows cars but prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists. In total, more than half of the project’s road space is dedicated to pedestrians.
This central spine will feature many of the project’s new buildings and ground-floor retail, including a grocery store that’s opening at the bottom of the first residential buildings, a two-tower, 420-unit project designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The pedestrian-focused space includes rows of live oak trees, outdoor seating, and shade structures on a winding promenade inspired by spaces such as Las Ramblas in Barcelona. As one of the most famous urban corridors in the world, that’s a high bar, and Manfredi says pulling off something similar is far from guaranteed.
“We worried that we weren’t going to get the oscillation back and forth, that the building walls were going to be too far apart,” Manfredi says. In collaboration with Reed Hilderbrand, he says the design team began to “think about that promenade not just as hardscape or softscape but active space, whether it’s permanent active space or temporary active space.” He argues that the scale of the project and the fast pace of its first phase help make it feasible to inject this kind of life into the area.
Cooke, a Tampa native, admits the project is an anomaly in Tampa, with its emphasis on pedestrian-oriented urbanism and high-quality design. “For a very long time, there’s been a lot of what I’d call lowest common denominator development in Tampa. I think it was just accepted, and doing anything beyond the norm was kind of like why would you do that?” he says. “So when this initial core set of designers was chosen for the phase, it was to really make a statement and show Tampa, show the world how great architecture can make great places.”
Having a strong residential population will be part of making that happen, Manfredi says, though the eventual residential population in its 3,500 units will only emerge gradually. As these people move in, Manfredi says the plan’s mix of uses and neighborhood feel—with pocket parks and locally focused retail—will help keep it from becoming just a tourist space. “Then the locals own it and hopefully resist that kind of overcommercialization,” he says.
He’s also hopeful that as the project materializes, it can have a ripple effect, spurring more mixed-use development in the city’s central business district and beyond. “We think it’s going to be a prototype,” Manfredi says. “I’ll be disappointed if it’s not copied.”