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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
Columnists

Henderson: Maybe it’s not too late to become a cool downtown dweller

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Crawling through traffic in downtown Tampa leaves a commuter with a lot of time to think.

Between the motionless mass that is southbound I-275 from downtown to West Shore, or the Medusa-like connector project between Interstate 4 and the Selmon Expressway, traffic can move so slowly you begin to understand what it must have been like traveling by covered wagon.

So, I asked the all-knowing, all-powerful Bob Buckhorn, the mayor of this traffic-clogged city, when our long congestive nightmare might end.

“Never soon enough,” he said. “You need to move into downtown and ride the wave. Forget the burbs.”

A large piece of Buckhorn’s relentless makeover of this city is the growing number of mostly young people choosing to live and work downtown. You see it around the Channel District, where condo towers that were virtually abandoned in the economic collapse are bustling again.

Where you used to see commuters in a mad dash for Brandon, New Tampa or other satellite communities, you now see residents walking, socializing, dining and shopping after dark.

More than 2,500 new apartments spread throughout 10 projects have either been completed or are in the works downtown in the last year or so. More will be on the way, and that figures to be one of Buckhorn’s big topics today at his annual state of the city report.

I have to admit, living downtown sounds more appealing with every minute I sit watching drivers maneuver through traffic cones and squeeze their way into small gaps, waiting for my turn and hoping the guy in the Cadillac Escalade doesn’t decide he owns the spot.

“Changing downtown is a part of the larger aim at changing Tampa’s economic DNA,” Buckhorn said. “In order to attract the kinds of businesses this city will need, we have to have a vibrant workforce.

“Young people don’t want to live in the burbs. They don’t care about the mall.”

The timing could be right for that downtown makeover.

Housing values have started to increase after years of stagnation. The jobless rate is falling. Places like Tampa General Hospital and the University of Tampa are wielding increasing impact west of the Hillsborough River. That adds credence to Buckhorn’s vision of the river as the center of downtown, not the boundary.

And all the road construction makes that morning and evening commute a little harder every day, and there’s no real end in sight to the parade of orange barrels. Sometimes, I think they put them up just for fun.

“There is a method to the madness,” Buckhorn said. “Part of it is bricks and mortar, but the bigger part is to create an environment where we keep our best and brightest here instead of losing them to places like Charlotte and Austin. And then we want to attract the best and brightest from other cities.

“Young people are looking for hip, cool, diverse and creative places where they can work, live and play in the same place. This leads to economic opportunity and sustainable growth. That’s what we have to do.”


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