TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s most recent visit to the North Boulevard Homes housing project came two weeks ago in the aftermath of a fatal shooting at Main Street and Rome Avenue.
Blood and bullet casings littered the ground.
Buckhorn noted the experience as he spoke today about plans to redevelop the troubled housing project and the acres of publicly owned riverfront property nearby.
The status quo is no longer acceptable, Buckhorn said.
He joined the leadership of the Tampa Housing Authority and a mix of planners and urban development experts to unveil the long-range master plan for the 150-acre site now dubbed “West River.”
The property lies between Interstate 275 and Columbus Drive, Rome Avenue and the Hillsborough River.
The site offers million-dollar views of downtown’s towers and potential access to the river, which Buckhorn has pledged to make a central feature in the future of downtown’s future growth.
“The next step,” said Tampa Housing Authority President Jerome Ryans, “is the money.”
The proposal, nearly three years in the making, will lay the foundation for the housing authority to seek a $30 million “Choice Neighborhoods” grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The agency will apply for the grant this year. If HUD approves, the money would be available in the 2015 federal budget.
The housing authority has used the same HUD grant to redevelop Central Park Village, which is now being remade as the Encore! project northeast of downtown. It took two tries to win that grant.
The HUD money would pay for relocating existing North Boulevard Homes residents, demolishing the Depression-era housing and building new mixed-income housing.
When relocation begins, North Boulevard residents will move to other public housing or get vouchers for private housing. They would have the option to move back to the redeveloped neighborhood as some people have done at Encore!, Ryans said.
But none of that can start until the money arrives, Ryans said.
When redevelopment does start, it will be a decade in the making, Ryans said.
Meanwhile, the city is working with Hillsborough County to create a community redevelopment district encompassing the West River area and West Tampa as far west as Howard Avenue. The district would funnel any new property taxes back into the projects within its boundaries.
The city has used community redevelopment district to raise millions of dollars for improvements to downtown, the Channel District and other communities.
Buckhorn said a redevelopment district could have a major impact on the 150-acre West River tract, which is dominated by public property and, as a result, produces just $150,000 in property taxes each year.
Replacing those public uses with taxable redevelopment would spur growth in the coming decades, he said.
“I will not be mayor when this is finished,” Buckhorn said. “But we’ve got to start. There is no better time to undertake something of this magnitude, of this size, than now.”
The West River project is part of Buckhorn’s larger InVision Tampa plan, an effort to integrate downtown and its surrounding urban neighborhoods into a more vibrant whole.
Two of the most common words speakers used to describe the West River project were “knit” and “stitch,” reflecting the notion of reconnecting with downtown a neighborhood that has long been isolated by dead-end streets and a reputation for crime and poverty.
“We have the bones of a great place, but it’s time to reinvent the neighborhood,” said Pete Sechler, chief of AECom, the Orlando planning firm hired to create the InVision plan.
As presented today, the plan for reinventing the West River area calls for:
♦ Doubling the number of housing units now on the site, from 820 to 1,600, all of it dense, multifamily buildings that would include a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing.
♦ Engaging the North Boulevard Homes’ existing residents in a public safety campaign aimed at bringing down crime in the neighborhood and making people feel safer.
♦ Creating a privately funded “Center for Working Families” to increase the job skills of current and future residents of the community to help them get and keep jobs.
The proposal also calls for making changes to the Just Elementary and Stewart Middle schools, which sit at the eastern edge of the project area. In order to gain public access to the river, planners want to move Stewart’s riverfront sports fields to a site along North Boulevard.
“We’re open to working with the city and the housing authority to help make the project work,” Hillsborough County Schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
Long term, the city, housing authority and school district also have talked about consolidating Just, Stewart and Blake High School, which also sits on prime riverfront land, into a single campus away from the water.
“We put that on the table for thought,” Buckhorn said. “The vast majority of this can be done without that happening. We can do this without moving any of the schools at all.”