Learning from Tampa

December 29, 2006 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Tampa’s rise and decline follows a similar pattern to Jacksonville’s. Both cities had a significant population during the early 20th century and are blessed to contain urban districts and architectural treasures that are rare to the Sunbelt. Both have also suffered from urban renewal, ill-advised peoplemovers, and 1970’s master plans that called for converting downtown retail districts into pedestrian malls. Today, we examine how Tampa has responded to downtown revitalization and expose some of the successes and failures of this Central Florida community’s urban core.


The word "Tampa" is a Native American word used to refer to the area when the first European explorers arrived in Florida. Its meaning, if any, has been lost to the ages, though it is sometimes claimed to mean "sticks of fire" in the language of the Calusa, a Native American tribe. Other historians claim the name refers to "The place to gather sticks." "Sticks of fire" may also relate to the high concentration of lightning strikes that Tampa Bay receives every year during the hot and wet summer months.

The word "Tampa" is a Native American word used to refer to the area when the first European explorers arrived in Florida. Its meaning, if any, has been lost to the ages, though it is sometimes claimed to mean "sticks of fire" in the language of the Calusa, a Native American tribe. Other historians claim the name refers to "The place to gather sticks." "Sticks of fire" may also relate to the high concentration of lightning strikes that Tampa Bay receives every year during the hot and wet summer months.

Growing up around 1820’s era military post Fort Brooke, Tampa was incorporated in 1849 with 185 inhabitants. The city remained a small village until the Tampa Board of Trade persuaded Vincente M. Ybor to relocate his cigar manufacturing operations to the city from Key West in 1885. Soon the city would rise to become the country’s largest cigar manufacturing center, attracting thousands of Italian and Cuban immigrants to work at the factories until the industry began to decline in the 1940s.

Illegal bolita lotteries became very popular among the Tampa working class, especially in Ybor City where many gambling parlors sprang up. Profits from the bolita lotteries and Prohibition-era bootlegging led to the development of several organized crime factions in the city. The first boss of Tampa's organized crime world was Charlie Wall, but various power struggles culminated in consolidation of control by Sicilian mafioso Santo Trafficante, Sr. and his faction in the 1950s.

Tampa’s economy has changed throughout the years, as the cigar industry has been replaced by tourism, financing and telecommunitcations as the region’s major economic engines. Tampa’s port has also grown to become Florida’s largest tonnage port and the nation’s seventh largest. Today, there has been a renewed interest in revitalizing the urban core and the results have been drastic.



Tampa Population 2005: 333,040 (City); 2,589,637 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1849)

Jacksonville Pop. 2005: 782,623 (City); 1,248,371 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1940: Jacksonville (173,000); Tampa (108,391)




The new Sam Gibbons Courthouse rises above the old Hillsborough County Courthouse.  Although only 17 stories, it is as tall as a typical 35 story building, standing at a height of 375 feet.


Luckily we were able to save the elaborate May-Cohens building, which was restored to become city hall.  Maas Brothers was founded in 1886 and grew to dominate Florida's West Coast, being known as "Greater Tampa's Greatest Store".  After an expansion plan gone bad, in the late 1980's the chain begain to fall into debt, with the flagship downtown Tampa store being closed for good in 1991.  After 15 years of vacancy and neglect, city leaders believed the store was downtown's largest eyesore along Franklin Street and pushed for its demolition.  In 2006, the store finally met the wrecking ball.


Tampa is a city that has had little respect for it's past.  Since the 1970's all but four historic buildings rising above 10 stories have been demolished, in favor of surface parking lots and new development.  The latest to bit the dust was the huge flagship downtown Maas Brothers Department Store (a local chain bought out by Burdines in the 1990s and eventually renamed Macy's) last year.  Its being replaced by a new condo tower called Six Ten Franklin.

Workforce housing developer Novare Group's Skypoint Tower rises in the background along with one of Tampa's three remaining historic highrises that unfortunately has been remodeled beyond recognition. 



Despite the lack of street life in downtown Tampa, things are changing for the better.  The old Floridian Hotel (in the background) is currently in the process of being converted back into a boutique hotel, providing an anchor for the old Franklin Street retail district.



Before the creation of suburban malls, Franklin Street was the regional shopping destination of the Tampa Bay area.  In 1973, city leaders closed a five-block stretch of the roadway, creating a brick paved pedestrian mall in an effort to keep shoppers from fleeing the core to the suburban malls.  By the 1980's, like many other American cities, this move proved to be a complete failure, as downtown continued to decay and retailers left at a faster place, once their visibility had been cut off from vehicular traffic. 

In 2002, the city followed the lead of others to reopen the street back to traffic, in hopes of reviving it's life as a retail district.  While retail has been slow to come, several bars and restuarants, along with small loft projects have began to move into the area.  With the 1971 Master Plan, we almost made the same mistake as Tampa by considering closing off Hogans and Laura Streets.  However, the retailers still left, due to other institutionalized issues that we still struggle to reform today.  In addition, the loop system put in place by the 1971 plan continues to make downtown a confusing place to get around.  If we take anything from Tampa's experience with the Franklin Street Mall disaster, it should be to completely undo the remaining parts of the 1971 loop plan, which would greatly ease the confusion many have traveling down downtown's maze of one-way streets traveling in the same direction. 


Today, Northern Franklin Street is seeing a surge in reconstruction.  Two of the latest projects include the eight story Residences of Franklin and a bar called The Fly.  Herman Massey Park can be seen in the background.


If you believe Hemming Plaza had a vagrancy problem, then you never had a chance to see Tampa's Herman Massey Park, less than two years ago.  In an effort to clean up the area's image, the city took agressive steps with activities being held within the park which terminated in the city arresting a group who tried to hold feedings for the homeless in the park and then closed the entire public space by putting up a tall chain-link fence around it.


Currently Jacksonville's Bank of America Tower holds the title of Florida's tallest building outside of metropolitan Miami.  However, Tampa has three modern towers taller than MODIS, with a few new ones under construction. 


At 160 feet tall, Tampa's City Hall building, constructed in 1915, is one of the few highrise structures remaining in what was once a CBD choke full of them prior to the 1970s.


We have the Florida Theatre, while downtown Tampa is the home of the Tampa Theater.  The good news, is both of these places are still in operation. 


Completed in 1912 and designed by J.F. Leitner, Union Station is the city's finest example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture.  Although rail travel has declined in the last few decades, the station became a home to Amtrak in 1997, and will potentially be part of Tampa's commuter rail plans.


The Tampa Firefighter's Museum is located near the Union Railroad Terminal on Zack Street.


The Sacred Heart Church building was dedicated in 1905. The church's impressive dome rises seventy feet above the center aisle, equaling the height of a seven story building.


The 360 room, 20 story tall, Embassy Suites Hotel will soon open to become downtown's newest lodging facility across the street from the convention center (on left side of image) and new streetcar terminal (circular building located in foreground).



Separated from downtown by the Garrison Channel, Habour Island wasn't always the posh urban community it is today.  For decades, it served as a home for industrial port operations under the name of Seddon Island.  In 1981, it was purchased by the Beneficial Corporation, which changed the island's name and developed the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel and a Landing-like marketplace called the Shops at Harbour Island in 1985, along with an ill-fated downtown peoplemover.


The shops quickly failed, along with the peoplemover, which was demolished in favor of an urban streetcar system.  Until 1996, development happened at a snail's pace.  Ten years later, the island is nearly built out with more than 1,000 condominiums, 500 single-family homes and townhomes, and more than 1,200 apartments, all within walking distance of the new streetcar line, Channelside and downtown.


Downtown skyline view, looking North from Harbour Island's marina on the Garrison Channel.

Harbour Island, as seen from the northside of the Garrison Channel. 


Houston-based urban infill developer Post Properties has developed over 800 multi-family units with street level retail on Harbour Island, since 1998.  Condo units range in size from 700 to 1,600 square feet priced between $190,000 to $430,000. 




The character of the Channel District, from its beginnings over 75 years ago, was maritime - related; a hardworking, industrial and commercial area, developed to serve the Port of Tampa, and the private shipping interests which gave Tampa its earliest reputation. Until the mid-1970's, when the commercial use of containerized shipping displaced general cargo shipping in Tampa, the District, known over the years as the Estuary, La Draga, and the Ybor Channel area, was home to ships' chandlers, shipping companies, bonded warehouses and thousands of longshoremen loading and unloading general cargo ships.

The late 1970's and 1980's were a period of decline and transition for the area, lagging behind redevelopment efforts in Downtown and Ybor City.  The District's future changed with the announcement that a new streetcar line would connect it with Downtown and Ybor City in the late 1990s.  Soon urban pioneers began to move into small industrial buildings, with mega developers following.  Today, the Channel District is one of the preimer places to be in Metropolitan Tampa.



The Channelside Entertainment/Retail complex opened for business in the late 1990s.  The skyline of nearby Harbour Island can be seen in the background, along with the Tampa Bay Lighting's (NHL franchise) arena.  The streetcar line in the foreground connects these districts, enabling visitors to get around the heart of the urban core without the use of a car.



Imagine the added vibrancy of the Northbank if our cruise port was located closer to downtown, instead of Hecksher Drive.  Connectivity is a major reason for the rapid successful revitalization of Tampa's inner core neighborhoods.  This image shows how close the cruise port is located to the Channelside entertainment/retail complex.

The Channelside complex is anchored by an IMAX theater, a megaplex cinema, bowling alley, ten sit down restaurants, five bars and a host of specialty shops.  Tenants include Banana Joe's, Margarita Mama's, Bennigan's, Splitsville and Grill 29 Steakhouse.  The complex also includes a stop along the new streetcar route. 

The 29 story Towers of Channelside twins rise above the Channel District.  Developers originally wanted two towers surrounded by a gate and no retail space.  But after meeting with residents, they incorporated $20-million worth of changes, including more sidewalks, landscaping and an awning for artists to display their wares.  Also included was 15,000 square feet for retail and a 20,000 square foot health club at street level.

In the last two years, several developments have been announced filling up abandoned parcels of land and former surface parking lots in the district, while keeping many of the historic warehouse structures in tact.  The result of building on infill lots and not on top of existing structures will be this district being completely built out in a pedestrian friendly format in less than 10 years after the streetcar line went into service.  As we ponder with the idea of commuter rail and transit oriented development, the success of Tampa's streetcar line on adjacent development should be noted.


This small warehouse has been renovated into a person residence and office.  The new construction of larger projects adjacent to this structure can be seen in the background.  Saving many of the small, yet plain, industrial brick buildings such as this, provides the district with a physical link to it's past, as well as a gritty and localized flavor that can't be captured by new construction.




After visiting Tampa in 1885, Vicente Martinez Ybor and Ignacio Haya decided to build cigar factories in the area. Ybor began developing Ybor City, a company town, "with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners."

Soon Ybor City developed as a multiethnic community where English was a second language for many of its citizens. Cubans made up the largest group, and Spaniards, who came in large numbers after 1890 made up the two largest groups to dominate the cigar industry and set the cultural tone for the community. The community also attracted Germans, Romanian Jews, Chinese and Italians, mostly Sicilians, many of which operated restaurants and small business to serve the cigar workers. The Germans contributed to the cigar industry through their superb cigar box art. The lithographs incorporated into their cover designs were considered the best in the world. Romanian Jews and Chinese immigrants worked mainly in retail businesses and in service trades.

With the addition of more cigar factories, Ybor City eventually outproduced Havana as a manufacturing center of quality cigars becoming the "Cigar Capital of the World" by 1900. The industry continued to prosper through the 1920's until the Depression and improved machinery for rolling cigars and increasing popularity of cigarettes. The 1960's issued in urban renewal with a significant portion of the community being level for what would become Interstate 4. After years of decline, Ybor began to regenerate itself as an urban nightlife and arts district in the early 1990s. Today, it has grown to become one of the largest pedestrian friendly and authentic entertainment districts in the Country.



Mentioned several times, as a primary factor for Tampa's successful redevelopment of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, the TECO Line Streetcar System opened in 2002.  There are 12 stations along the 2.3 mile route, which will soon be expanded to extend from the downtown Convention Center to the Franklin Street commercial corridor.


Like Jacksonville, Tampa's economy was originally based on industrial operations.  While Ybor City was the epicenter for the cigar industry other factories opened in the general vicinity, due to the abundance of available labor, rail lines and the port being a few blocks to the south.  One of those companies was the Florida Brewing Co., which operated from 1896 to 1961 in this structure.  Recently, the old factory was purchased by developers who have since then renovated the structure into loft office space. 

Believe it or not, Jacksonville still has several unique underutilized large scale industrial structures, such as the old Ford Plant and the Union Terminal Warehouse, remaining as well.  As the core continues to develop, if they can stay away from the demolition bug, they should be considered as prime redevelopment sites for creative uses that can be a catalyst for future development in the neighborhoods surrounding them.


7th Avenue was Ybor City's main business district during it's cigar making days.  In the early 1990's, cheap rents attracted artistic types thriving the local rave scene.  Soon local leaders clamped down on the rowdy bar district with ordinances barring all-night dance parties and stripping some rave clubs of their liquor licenses.  Then developers came in, rents increased significantly forcing the starving artists to relocate.  Today, 7th Avenue is still lined with nightclubs and bars, but they are becoming more upscale with each and every passing day.


One of the interesting things about Ybor is the creativity displayed by individual business owners to set their establishment apart from the others.  This type of mindset would definitely benefit the downtown core, especially the Bay Street Town Center.

Centro Ybor is a trendy shopping complex located along 7th Avenue, in the heart of Ybor City. The complex is anchored by the Muvico Centro Ybor 20 Theater and features such names as Gameworks, The Improv, Victoria's Secret and Urban Outfitters.

Ybor City's 7th Avenue becomes party central during weekend nights and festivals.  The connectivity of adjacent buildings ( lack of walkability killing surface lots), unique business signage, complementing uses and street lighting form to drive the District's success as a high energy place to be.

Despite the vibrancy of Ybor and its connectivity with Channelside, Harbour Island and Downtown, via the streetcar line, it's still easily to find condominiums within walking distance beginning in the $160,000's.  Given that Tampa's cost of living is higher than Jacksonville's, it really rises a question to why similar sized lofts are marketed at much higher rates in an urban core that has no where near the vibrancy or walkability of neighborhoods like Ybor City.