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Developers envision The Heights as historic riverfront neighborhood

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Published:   |   Updated: July 27, 2013 at 09:57 AM

Several years ago, developers envisioned a dozen massive new buildings at a site called River Heights, just north of downtown along the river. Then the downturn came, and those dreams evaporated. The site sat dormant.

Now, a new pair of Tampa-based developers with SoHo Capital have quietly acquired the 37-acre site and are moving forward with a new vision to build a historic-style, mixed-use neighborhood called The Heights, anchored by adapting the huge Armature Works brick warehouse, and surrounding it with revival-theme offices, a boutique hotel, a significant grocery store, 1,000-plus homes and a broad park on waterfront.

When fully realized, investments in the project could top $300 million to $350 million among several builders.

"We see this as the heart and soul of the community," said Adam Harden, principal at SoHo Capital, which is spearheading the project. "This is a great piece of Tampa history, and we think the Armature Works building at the center will inform the design and scale and feel of a much more urban place that you'd normally see in bigger cities."

Though the developers have been especially private with their plans, and say they want to move methodically, "we have one shot to make a first impression," said Chas Bruck, founder of SoHo Capital. That means they won't build one structure a year before moving to the next. They need to create critical mass on site almost all at once, with independent-themed projects, rather than cookie-cutter brand names that appear anywhere else in town. That means indi stores rather than Walmarts and quirky retailers rather than The Gap.

Contractors have already started some simple repairs to the Armature Works building, and they plan to fully break ground around year end, which pleases Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who is anxious for the group to start work on what he considers the most important plot of undeveloped land in the region.

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Thus Harden and Bruck step into a plot of land where scores of hopes and dreams have circled unsuccessfully.

The wider neighborhood thrived during the early 1900s. The Tampa Electric Street and Railway Company built a streetcar maintenance barn in 1911 at 1910 N. Ola Ave. and overall streetcar ridership reached 22.5 million in 1944. But automobiles were taking over, and streetcars ceased operations in 1946. The building ultimately became workspace for the Tampa Armature Works.

Del Acosta, who was Tampa's longtime historic preservation chief, notes that the city's more prominent and wealthy African-American families once built grand mansions along Palm Avenue, which cuts right through The Heights site.

The Tampa Police Department had a major facility near there until moving its headquarters downtown. Suburban flight drained many residents, and after the police department moved, various development plans led to a leveling of almost every structure, leaving the site derelict for years.

Unlike the tall, glass towers once envisioned for the site years ago, this plan goes in a different direction.

Housing will be split among several smaller, mid-rise buildings, with potentially 1,100 units, including condos, apartments and an affordable housing section. Retail will be spread out among 100,000 square feet of space, roughly the size of a Super Walmart in total, but Bruck said there's zero chance of a typical "big box" store. Rather, he wants quirky retailers, and shops that have looked at places like International Plaza, but wouldn't feel at home there.

The 160,000 potential square feet of office space will be spread among several four and five story buildings, rather than one huge office block.

A boutique hotel should be part of the mix, Harden said, most likely with a four-star, yet "select service" hotel that would use the Armature Works building for its event space. Through connections with local builders, Bruck is negotiating with several potential tenants that could take up the bulk of the office space.

Plans call for 100 boat slips along the river for residents and visitors. Bruck envisions each weekend will have a Farmer's Market, and streets are designed to be easily closed off as a festival site.

Perhaps the most pivotal element for neighbors will be this: A grocery store. Bruck and Harden are adamant that the area north of downtown needs a significant grocery store to fill a void, particularly for fresh produce. The neighborhood, they said, suffers because there's no major grocery store, stretching from the Bayshore Boulevard Publix and Kennedy Boulevard Walmart to a Sweetbay several miles north on Nebraska Avenue.

In theory, the new neighborhood could reach a population of 4,300, rivaling the population of the fast-growing Channel District.

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In designing this vision, the developers took cues from several other historic-themed projects nationwide, including the White Provisions mixed use neighborhood in Atlanta, and the National Harbor neighborhood in Washington that have hotels, offices shopping, residences and a waterfront space.

One issue facing the developers is how the neighbors around their project will react. On one hand, residents further south in Tampa are starting to block new projects out of concern about density and traffic, especially along South Howard Avenue.

On the other hand, the River site has been derelict for years, and always looked on as perhaps the largest and most important undeveloped parcel along a waterfront. City leaders are trying to re-embrace such areas with the Riverwalk and support for new restaurants - helping make river projects a symbol of Tampa's resurgence.

Bruck said he deeply hopes the city will embrace the project as a far better kind of development than past plans, something far more authentic than cookie-cutter strip malls and generic housing tracts.

They could build the Riverwalk through their property, then donate the land to the City. They'll re-arrange streets on site to tilt so they have a direct view of downtown Tampa, and they'll use bricks they pull up from the old streets to pave the new ones. Street lamps, bike racks and benches will be wrought iron styling and they plan to relocate trees on site to the Riverwalk and along new boulevards. Bike lanes will follow most of the new streets.

Decades ago, the site had a tall water tower, and the developers have found one elsewhere in Tampa that they could move onto the site for scenic value.

To do all this, SoHo hired architects who specialize in adaptive re-use of old buildings. One lead architect is SmithDalia of Atlanta, which designed White Provisions and the renovation of a warehouse building on Kennedy Boulevard into the Oxford Exchange.

At the Armature Works building, for instance, they'll use the brick superstructure, yet open up the central area with a glass-ceilinged atrium and second-story balcony.

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The developers do have several factors working in their favor. The site has long been set for redevelopment. Rather than build and flip the property, they aim to operate it long term. Also, the site is within an Enterprise Zone, so companies that bring jobs there can apply for government incentives. There is also a tax structure to boost funding for new utilities underground, though the developers aren't asking the City for any of their own incentives or financial perks.

Zoning for the site was set with the previous developer's plans for a more dense neighborhood, and this pair of new developers don't plan to approach those limits.

The City of Tampa is also helping the project in one regard, by steering more than $3 million in funding to rehab an existing park on the south side with a natural spring and walking trails.

The developers themselves are a mix of youth and experience. Bruck is 30 years old, though he's led development of several million dollars in housing and commercial projects in the area. Harden, 50, is a long-time developer in the area, having held high positions at US Home Inc. and managed developments of more than 16,000 homes.

Some of their resources come through investments in technology companies by members of the Bruck family, helping fuel both new projects and the Bruck Family Foundation that contributes to several local charities.

Through Harden and other connections, the pair have done deals with some of the area's important real estate moguls, including RV magnate Don Wallace, who once held a stake in the Armature Works building. The well-known developer Bill Bishop once planned a major neighborhood project on the site, but the downturn dashed those plans.

SoHo Capital took control of the parcel on the river by acquiring the debt that hung over the property from past developers for an undisclosed sum. Hillsborough County records show a land transaction deal for parts of the area that topped $2 million last October. City documents show they plan a bond sale in the next couple years for further funding, and Bruck said they are in the final stages of picking a bank to handle financing.

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"I think it's a spectacular project. The site has wonderful views of the sunset," said Del Acosta. "With this, it's a matter of having realistic expectations, and they acquired control of the site at a discount. Still, I could easily see some kind of biotech company locating there, or a new medical school. It's the kind of project you might normally see in places like Atlanta or San Francisco."

Some preliminary paperwork is already flowing through the city offices, with the support of Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Just a few weeks ago, Buckhorn celebrated the ground-breaking of the Ulele restaurant that owners of the Columbia Restaurant are building in a former Waterworks brick building next door. During the Ulele ceremony, Buckhorn pointed over to The Heights project and said he hoped they would be "turning dirt" soon, making the site an anchor of the Riverwalk and of a broader revival of historic neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

One big reason: Buckhorn plans huge redevelopment directly across the river, and The Heights project would only add momentum to that work.

"I think that is one of the best undeveloped pieces of land in the Southeast," Buckhorn said, adding that SoHo Capital's past actions to acquire the land suggest they could have the resources to pull it off, particularly if they act as quarterback for other developers coming into the site for specific buildings. Buckhorn added that he wants the group to have a smooth path through zoning and permitting. "I'm eager for them to get going. I want to see concrete pouring and steel going up."

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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