Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik isn’t ready yet to unveil a gleaming architectural drawing of how everything in the new Channelside Bay Plaza will look, partly because that plan won’t exist for many more months.
However, on Friday some of his lieutenants sketched out a timeline for when they hope some of the major pieces will fall into place for renovating both the struggling shopping complex and the wider Channel District neighborhood that Vinik increasingly controls with each passing land purchase he makes.
“For a long time we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone at the port or on the site at all,” said Jim Shimberg, executive vice president and general counsel of the Lightning and chief lawyer for Vinik’s Channelside project. “And until Monday, we didn’t know for sure if Channelside would be a component we would have for the master plan.”
Now that Vinik won control of Channelside — after a complicated legal dispute over Channelside came to a settlement Monday — Shimberg and others can start talking about what comes next.
Shimberg laid out the following plan:
♦ Phase one: The nuts-and-bolts mechanics of signing the deal to become the operator of Channelside and discharging the current court-appointed operator of the site. That may happen within one or two weeks, he said.
♦ Phase two: Vinik’s designated property manager and leasing agent, Andrew Wright, will begin some of the immediate fixes on Channelside, meaning everything from burned out light bulbs and uncovered electrical panels to fixing any roof leaks, and perhaps repairing the broken escalators to the second level.
Vinik already committed a $10 million line of credit that will go, in part, to those repairs. Those fixes should start as soon as possible, and may be the first outward signs the public may notice that action is afoot at Channelside.
♦ Phase three: With litigation put to rest, Shimberg and others can finally start direct talks with shopkeepers, neighbors and port staff about possibilities within Channelside. The port owns the land underneath the complex and Vinik is the designated tenant/operator.
Key topics of that discussion will be how the structure could be changed, and whether the waterfront can be opened up for people to walk around — as had been envisioned before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to security fences blocking access.
Without describing them as requirements, Shimberg said he’s seen other ports have more flexible arrangements where a wharf or waterfront space is open to foot traffic whenever a cruise ship is not presently docked.
“In many places,” he said. “We can do both — have pedestrian traffic and have security.”
As soon as autumn, the Lightning organization likely will start holding “programming” events at Channelside, like fan appreciation nights at restaurants and the central bar area. The Lightning hockey team plays in the adjacent Forum arena.
Property manager Wright said, “We’re as anxious as anyone to see something new there.” Still, the over-arching priority is to “get this right, rather than right now.” He’s heard from retailers and shops of nearly every type who are interested in Channelside’s future, but there are months ahead for the team to “get our arms around the property.”
As for perhaps the biggest question — take down the whole site and start over, or work with the existing structure — Wright said the No. 1 priority is the existing tenants who don’t want their businesses disrupted. At the same time, he said the “fatal flaw” of the original design was that the whole building was “closed off” from both the water and the wider neighborhood, so a lot of his planning will involve sifting through ideas to connect Channelside to neighbors and make it more appealing to foot traffic.
By September, planners will likely announce which architect will lead the design of the neighborhood. They’re interviewing candidates now.
♦ Phase four: Vinik’s master plan for the wider neighborhood starts to come to fruition. Shimberg and others may begin talking with the port about the so-called “side parking lot,” owned by the port and directly to the west of Channelside.
“We’re now uniquely positioned in the short term to drive business there,” Shimberg said.
Moreover, there is a zoning hearing with the city of Tampa over Vinik’s proposed hotel project at Florida Avenue and Old Water Street. The application involves a structure with 400 hotel rooms, 50 residences above, 175,000 square feet of meeting space (roughly the size of three large Publix stores) and 45,000 square feet of retail space. Shimberg said to expect those residential units to come in at the luxury end of the market, as the Channel District already has plenty of mid-level housing under development.
Vinik has been buying up scores of properties north of Channelside Drive, including a deal closed this month for the three remaining shotgun-style homes on Nebraska Avenue.
Many other details should fall into place, Shimberg said, when the master plan comes together. That includes the site of the former Luxury Box restaurant, where Ferg’s plans to open a bar/restaurant, and the new owners should be able to decide the fate of the former Newk’s restaurant space that’s now empty.
Shimberg declined to talk about any budgets for the Channelside overhaul, or budgets for the overall neighborhood plan.
As for perhaps the biggest question around town — building a baseball stadium — Shimberg gave a polite “no comment.”
Plenty of politicians and baseball fans have hoped that Vinik remaking the neighborhood could usher in a move by the Tampa Bay Rays from St. Petersburg to a new stadium in downtown Tampa, but Shimberg indicated fixing Channelside and the immediate neighborhood is the only thing on the agenda.