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Wednesday, Mar 20, 2019
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Port Tampa Bay announces plans for Channel District land

TAMPA — Port Tampa Bay on Thursday unveiled an elaborate development plan for 45 acres of land in the Channel District — much of it on the waterfront — including hotels, residential towers, a major park and marina.

If the plan is carried out in full — it stretches from the Florida Aquarium, north to the port’s historic banana docks — it would be one of the largest waterfront projects undertaken in the nation, said designer Luis Ajamil, with Miami-based Bermello Ajamil & Partners Inc.

The plan, which includes four districts — the cruise district, the central waterfront, the park district and the marina district — would take about $1.5 billion in private investment money and require another $200 million in infrastructure improvements paid for by the port and the city’s Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA funds.

Port President and CEO Paul Anderson said there are no specific developers lined up yet to turn the plan’s vision into reality, but big investors are aware there is major development planned for Tampa and he expects plenty of contact very soon.

The Channel District’s project meshes with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s expansive plan in the area, where he proposes about $1 billion in development to convert that corridor into a major urban oasis for residents, businesses and tourists. That plan includes a major corporate headquarters and relocation of the University of South Florida’s medical school to downtown.

In the works for about a year now, port officials, along with city and county elected representatives, have kept their plans close to the vest, waiting for the big announcement.

While the port’s Channel District Vision plan is still in its infancy, it would not take much to get construction underway, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. He said most of the land use changes are fairly minor.

Construction of 9 million square feet of mixed-use development would likely begin in front of the Florida Aquarium, where the port would make a land swap, moving parking for the popular attraction into a nearby parking garage, then converting the existing lot into a hotel with some residential units and an open-air market, or Mercado, underneath. The American Victory ship, docked behind the aquarium, might be moved.

The project would continue north, with creation of two residential towers up to 75 stories, demolition of Cruise Ship Terminal 6, then expansion of Terminal 3 to accommodate two ships at a time, a 7-acre park, roughly the size of Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa, as well as various retail and office spots.

The Channel District Vision plan acknowledges that the port has no plans to move its cruise ship terminals to Pinellas County to accommodate new and much larger cruise ships currently unable to travel under the Skyway bridge to reach Port Tampa Bay.

Anderson said market studies show the cruise ship business continuing to grow here over the next few years including the addition of new cruise ships and ships using Tampa as a port of call. But that business is expected to taper off within five to 10 years from some 970,000 passengers to 500,000-700,000 passengers.

The plan could also mean either a move or an exit for much of the port’s ship repair business, most located closer to State Road 60.

George Lorton, who owns International Ship Repair and 24 acres near the proposed marina, said he is taking this one step at a time. He has two other berths at Port Tampa Bay, a ship yard in Galveston and plenty of time to plan, he said.

Most, if not all of the land targeted by the plan, would remain in port ownership, Anderson said.

The premise behind the plan is to use some of the port’s real estate in a way that will continue to help it grow and thrive, Anderson said. “It’s a small but significant piece of the 5,000-acre footprint of the port and adds diversity and uniqueness.”

The “ground leases” could run from 40 to 100 years and would provide a continuing revenue stream for the port. A large chunk of port income already comes from real estate, he said, so this would just strengthen that revenue stream. He did acknowledge that there could be a few cases where the port would be willing to sell a parcel, but said that would be decided by the port authority board on a case-by-case basis.

Much of the Channel District has already converted from light industrial to residential. The plan, Anderson said, adds many of the amenities downtown residents want — a Whole Foods grocery was mentioned — and opens up more opportunities for tourists and the general public.

Buckhorn said the plan represents what he has worked for during the past four years. “We’ve tried to preserve the view corridors, which really opens the sight to the water. We want the waterfront to be for everyone, not just those in the high rises.”

The mayor called the city’s parks one of the “great gathering places” for residents and said the park envisioned for the waterfront in the Channel District will add yet another major amenity people can enjoy.

When ships aren’t in port, according to the plan, park visitors would have direct waterfront access. When cruise ships are in port, a gate would close for security, but visitors could still use an elevated platform to view the cruise ships and the working port.

Ajamil said the park will be a place where downtown residents and those visiting can bring their dogs, or just hang out and enjoy the view. Whether it would also become a festival venue like Curtis Hixon Park is something the city will have to decide, he said.

Part of the plan is to widen the sidewalk on the west side of Channelside drive to allow for the addition of sidewalk cafes. The plan also calls for on-street parking on that side. Ajamil said a modernized streetcar is considered in the vision.

The two residential towers included in the plan would be built with a narrow design to preserve as much of the waterfront view as possible, he said. Just how tall they will be — and for that matter, how this entire plan will progress — will be driven by the market, Ajamil said.

Buckhorn said demand for urban residential in Tampa currently far outstrips supply. “There’s a buzz that’s palpable and the excitement is recognized all over the country about what is going on in Tampa, Florida.

“People want to invest in this community because the urban core is turning a page and the port is turning a page,” said Buckhorn, who sits on the Tampa Port Authority board. He said young professionals are now choosing Tampa over progressive places like Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte.

“This is keeping with the port mission, but realizing there are better uses for this property,” Buckhorn said.

The project will not squeeze taxpayers, nor will it take money away from projects in any other part of the city, the mayor said.

Port officials met with neighborhood groups and held individual meetings with people over the past year to discuss and design the plan, Ajamil said, adding that more public input will be requested as the project moves forward.

He said waterfront projects are typically difficult to complete and many fail because various factions can’t agree on how to proceed. That has not been the case here, he said, so he doesn’t expect that outcome.

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