Written by: Lucila Marti Garro

TAMPA – Not even the coronavirus managed to stop construction in Tampa. In the last decade the city center has been transformed. There are cranes and wastes next to shiny, mirrored buildings. A series of developments, some completed, others in project or construction, inject downtown with a dynamism that it did not have. Even some of the billions of magnate Bill Gates are responsible for that change.

The star of this boom is the ambitious Water Street district, one of the largest real estate developments in the United States. Behind this mega project are two familiar faces from the business world: Jeffrey Vinik, a financier, now the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, and Bill Gates’ investment fund, Cascade Investment. Together they created Strategic Property Partners. Through a disbursement of US $3.5 billion, they will completely transform the once dying city center.

The 22-hectare [approx. 54 acres] project on the river will include 18 towers; 3,500 residential units for sale and rent; three hotels, including the first 5 stars in the city; 93,000 m2 [approx. 1 million square feet] of retail space, including the first ever open mall with Tampa Bay-facing restaurants, Sparkman Wharf; and almost 100,000 square meters [approx. 1.1 million square feet] of new offices.

It will also have a cultural center, a University of South Florida cardiology institute, and five acres of green and public spaces. ”The incomparable offer of offices in Water Street Tampa is prepared to accommodate the large influx of start-ups that move to the city from all over the United States,” says the company. They foresee that once the neighborhood is complete, “23,000 people will live, work, and visit Water Street every day.”

According to the firm, the office towers of the center will be the first constructed in the last 25 years, a fact that shows the lethargy from which it is waking up. It will be the first community in the world to receive the WELL D&O designation, a standard in design based on healthy living. 60% of the space will be for pedestrians, air quality will be measured, it will have intelligent buildings with lighting linked to circadian rhythms (its hue imitates natural light), water fountains and fruit and vegetable gardens.

Like the rest of the country, private construction is considered an essential service in the state of Florida, so, except for some delays at the start of the pandemic, real estate developments continued their march despite the global outbreak of coronavirus, while restaurants and nonessential businesses were temporarily closed.

The project also forced the state to reconfigure the area’s highway system. The county is investing in underground infrastructure, new streets, bikeways, and water, sewer, electricity, and communications systems.

But the change in this city, which always lived in the shadow of Orlando, began before the Water Street project, with several key movements that helped make downtown a more desirable place to live.

The Performing Arts Center, the Convention Center, the historic district, the Aquarium and a stadium for the Vinik (Tampa Bay Lightning) hockey team contributed to changing the destiny of the city. All the attractions were linked by a main artery: the 4km [approx. 2.5 miles] Riverwalk trail along the Hillsborough River, which had been discussed and developed in parts for 40 years. Today, the Riverwalk is a beautiful promenade along the river, linking attractive places in the city with bicycle and pedestrian paths.

“In just a couple of years, Tampa will be a very different place from today, and almost unrecognizable from the last decade. The center will double in size, with major projects like the West River Redevelopment Plan, Midtown Tampa, Water Street Tampa, The Heights and the complete airport master plan. Tampa Bay is one of the most desirable places in the world to work or start a business. When it comes to competing with places like Atlanta and Dallas in workforce and employment, we are better positioned. With all this attention, many foreign entities, which now only think of Miami as an investment destination, will begin to think of Tampa more and more,” Steve Morey, Vice President of Economic Development at the Tampa Bay Economic Council, points out to The Nation.

Since the recession in 2008, Tampa has diversified its economy, relocated many large employers, and invested in its entrepreneurial ecosystem. Business setup and expansion spans the spectrum

of information technology, financial and professional services, life sciences, and manufacturing. “Every day we receive inquiries from leading and influential entrepreneurs around the world who want to know more about the prospects of relocating here. Tampa is selling itself. The word of mouth from all of these leaders has started a massive domino effect,” Morey says.

The tallest building on Florida’s west coast is also being born there. Feldman Equities is building a 50-story Riverwalk Place with a refined design that simulates the sailing of a boat, since it will be on the river.

Midtown Tampa is another ongoing project. An investment of 500 million dollars located on 9 hectares [approx. 22.2 acres] 6 km [approx. 3.7 miles] from the center, for multiple uses. Nicholas Haines, CEO of Bromley, developer of Midtown Tampa, says the team averages a

new floor every eight to 10 days in the project’s 390-unit apartment complex, Novel Midtown Tampa. Physical work has progressed smoothly despite the coronavirus outbreak, Haines anticipates.

“We have social distancing and full-time team members who oversee the new security protocols. Despite this, our progress continues unabated,” he adds. Eleven buildings are being built at the same time in his complex.

“The market here has been exploding with new developments,” says the Midtown Tampa executive. Construction began last year and will be completed by February 2021, when the Super Bowl, the national football event, arrives in this city.

“For the first time in over a decade, the Tampa Bay area is experiencing a wave of office development, with approximately 130,000 m2 [approx. 1.4 million square feet] under construction at the end of 2019, and much more in the queue. The first new Class A office buildings in more than 20 years will be seen,” he details.

Positive numbers

In the report Emerging Trends in Real Estate published for 41 years by PwC, you can read this boom. The region ranked 35th for the overall property outlook in 2015; in 2018, it rose to 19th place; and in 2020, 11th. Tampa is seeing its population increase by almost 50,000 people a year.

But not all eggs go into the same basket. While some developers focus on the center, others target their surroundings. ”There are many unknown areas, all around the bay. Miami is saturated, and I think Tampa is even better, we are an hour from Walt Disney World, and we have beautiful beaches like Clearwater. Investors are coming from Miami. Southeast Asian businessman willing to invest $ 35 million,” says Laura Meza-Wulf, an Argentine with many years of residence in this city, who is a realtor for Century 21 Beggins.

In the home market, east of the bay, prices “are super affordable,” he says. “You can own a property with a marina and a water view for $600,000,” and he mentions the case of Apollo Beach, an area 29 km [approx. 18 miles] south of downtown, until recently with just nurseries and cows. ”New neighborhoods are being developed there. You can find ten construction companies, everything is growing towards the south,” he says.

Throughout her history, Orlando’s younger sister has not had the level of investment that Florida’s east coast, particularly Miami, experienced. Even many still remember it when it was just an agricultural community, with fruit and cattle plantations. But Miami was also once a city of retirees. Will Tampa experience the same fate?