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What Tampa’s Modern Reinvention Says About the Future of American Cities

We take a look at future trends in American living through the lens of one of the country’s most ambitious projects.

Tampa’s landscape feels oddly familiar. Florida’s third-largest city unfurls into unremarkable suburban-style sprawl centered around multiple small urban centers that show more history than most of the state. (The area has immigrant roots dating to the early 1900s.)

Although more than 3 million people call the Tampa–St. Petersburg–Clearwater area home (and it ranks in the top 10 of 2017 national population growth), it’s not exactly top of mind when it comes to innovation and urban planning. However, much like other second-tier cities across the country, that’s changing.

“People think of Florida as retirement, but Tampa’s average age is actually below the national average,” says James Nozar, CEO of Strategic Property Partners (SPP), the development firm overseeing Water Street Tampa—one of America’s most ambitious urban revitalization plans. Backed by Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment and entrepreneur Jeff Vinik, the project represents more than 1 million square feet of new street-level activity space along with a literal reorganization of Tampa’s downtown.

“Tampa is turning back towards its waterfront,” says John Rossant, founder and chairman of NewCities Foundation, a global nonprofit focused on urban planning. “The people backing it financially are super smart and what’s interesting is that from the get-go, Water Street was positioned as world-class—something that could radically reposition Tampa and turn it into a global city.”

Rossant notes that Water Street Tampa is a prime example of the leadership role “tier 2” cities are taking in the conversation about the future world city.

Typically, these small and medium-size cities (like Boston, Columbus, and Seattle) are more nimble than larger metro areas, and the public and private sectors work together in a way that promotes and activates innovation faster than a larger city like Los Angeles, New York, or London.

Water Street was the result of years of collaboration between SPP and a variety of local and regional government entities who envisioned what Tampa’s largely unused downtown could be.

“The completion of the Riverwalk [in 2012–13] was the event that opened the eyes to what the city could be,” says Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn. “We were a city that historically turned our backs on the river, but it was our best asset.”

This realization jump-started the blistering rate of construction that’s now commonplace in and around the anchor point of Amalie Arena. By 2027, downtown Tampa could be a modern showpiece of sustainable, attainable living. SPP is overseeing everything from the recently opened Sparkman Wharf food complex to multiple high-end hotels and residences in a cumulative effort to be the first WELL-certified neighborhood in the world.

“It’s much more about how people interact with space. Wellness is about how inhabitants work around the surroundings,” Nozar says about the designation, which strives for holistic integration of health and wellness throughout buildings and communities.

A next big step toward that goal will take shape when the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute opens on Water Street’s east side this fall. With USF’s main campus 25 minutes north, this signals a notable shift of a younger, affluent population migrating downtown, with housing and recreation coming online to support the move.

A good example of the effects of a similar shift is already on display in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood.

What was once a lost industrial area has now transformed into a thriving modern center with young, affluent professionals flocking to aptly priced high-rises all built into a walkable area that promotes collaboration and continued innovation. It’s another “tier 2” city that’s reinventing a large swath of land in order to stay relevant among the shifting needs of modern buyers, renters, and visitors.

Perhaps what’s more interesting in Tampa is that since Water Street is implementing a variety of technology and living initiatives that are new to a development of this size, it will be among the first to encounter associated problems at scale—notably, data.

“[At this level] it would be unprecedented,” says Greg Lindsay, urbanist-in-residence at URBAN-X and a senior fellow at NewCities. “Who’s getting all of that data? What are they collecting and how are they doing it?”

Water Street is working to have 5G Wi-Fi access available across the entire district as a “base-level” offering. They’re also building out a digital concierge, which will do everything from finding parking to making dinner reservations (all while collecting the data of those who are using it).

“[We have to look at] how we treat ownership around the devices. Sometimes there’s information you don’t want,” says SPP’s SVP of digital innovation and technology, Steve Fifita. “The best way to work through all of this is with transparency.”

As the definition of the 21st- (and 22nd-) century city continues to evolve, this correlation between data collection and personal privacy is going to be a big issue. Especially with the rising tensions around the Google/Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto, Water Street could be looked to as the next example of the public and private sectors working together under distinctive scrutiny as to how all of these data points are collected and handled.

Since many of these modernized communities are building amenities and locales appealing to the young and the affluent, the idea of luxury living is going to radically shift along with it.

The live/work/play lifestyle that’s already taking shape across the country will become even more standard. Small, boutique offerings like the 35 condos on top of the Edition Hotel coming to Water Street (“prime units that will set a new precedent for luxury condos in the Tampa Bay market,” according to SPP, and the first hotel-branded residences in the area) puts amenitized living at the forefront of highly urbanized environments.

“Tampa used to sell itself as value,” Nozar says, “but we’re seeing a shift here and no one has been catering to that.”

Coupled with the expanding Tampa Innovation District to the north, the city as a whole represents a case study in the future of viable luxury in large-scale real estate.

If one thing is clear, the success stories will be those cities that have decided to work together and cater to the rapidly changing needs of a 21st-century workforce.

“Talent are like the bait fish,” Buckhorn says. “It wasn’t the case eight years ago, but now we’ve become this place where kids want to be. Ultimately, they’ll dictate who wins this race.”

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