TAMPA — When the head of the politically powerful Westshore Alliance looks at Jefferson High’s sprawling 60-acre campus, he sees the perfect spot for new retail businesses — maybe even a hotel.
Ron Rotella, executive director of the alliance, which represents hundreds of businesses and thousands of employees in the area, envisions at least a portion of the campus as the future home for apartments or townhouses, shops and more — all tied in with a transit hub the state plans to construct nearby.
Rotella, speaking at an alliance luncheon Tuesday, said he plans to make his case for a redevelopment plan before the Hillsborough County School Board on Sept. 30 and to ask permission to work with its staff.
“Jefferson is an old, one-story school,” Rotella said. “I would never suggest to them that they relocate Jefferson. That would be their decision.”
But he is hoping the school board will at least consider consolidating school buildings — including adjacent Roland Park K-8 Magnet School and Lavoy Exceptional Center for students with disabilities — into one multistory building and using the rest of the property for economic development.
“By anyone’s standard, there is a gross under-utilization of the site,” Rotella said.
Hillsborough Deputy Superintendent Cathy Valdes said school district officials are open to discussion as long as the plans come at no cost to them.
“That’s a big tract of land,” she said. “It’s very valuable. We’ve told them we’ve got to operate our three schools. It can’t cost us any money.”
Valdes added that the district has been involved in the planning process for West Shore development for years.
“While we need to make sure we’re protecting the interest of the school board, schools and taxpayers, we’re always willing to talk,” she said.
Rotella said he has spoken with schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and she has been receptive to the idea.
But until she has the board’s go-ahead, he said, she can’t participate in any new plan for its future.
The original Jefferson High School was built in 1939 in Tampa Heights. In 1973, the school moved to its current building at 4401 W. Cypress St. and started a magnet program in 2001. Today, Jefferson serves 1,532 students. Nearby Roland Park has 812 students enrolled and Lavoy has 87 students.
Right now, Rotella said, the leasing of commercial office space remains fairly stagnant in the West Shore Business District — Florida’s largest commercial office district, he said — as well as regionwide.
But that won’t always be the case.
The Florida Department of Transportation plans to build a transit hub on property currently occupied by the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tampa Airport and Charley’s Steakhouse on the north side of Interstate 275.
When the West Shore Regional Multimodal Center is built, it is expected to include retail space.
Rotella said he visited the state’s transit hub in Miami and officials there told him their greatest regrets were not including more retail space and a hotel. Hillsborough County can do better, he said, and the Jefferson High property could play a role in that.
“We want to make West Shore more pedestrian friendly, more walkable,” Rotella said. When the transit center goes in, connecting Tampa International Airport’s future people mover with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus system and possible future light rail, it makes sense to redevelop the campus, he said.
District 5 school board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose area includes the three schools, said she is aware of the alliance’s proposal but wants to hear more details before she forms an opinion.
Edgecomb said she would like to see some evidence that the land is underused now.
“There are a lot of issues to discuss,” she said, adding that she would like to take into account those who live in the nearby Carver City community.
“There are implications not just for the schools. There have been some ongoing differences between the neighbors feeling the growth of the area, especially commercially, has taken over the purpose of the community.”