My first post-art-school housing was a loft in an old commercial building just west of the Chicago loop. Brick walls, wood floors, exposed wiring, 10-foot-square windows that opened to a fire escape overlooking the El tracks. I know it's not fair to compare 1980s Chicago to 21st-century Tampa - apples to oranges - but until recently the Channel District's down-at-the-heels warehouse chic looked a lot like my old Chicago neighborhood.
The cycle of redevelopment in urban loft neighborhoods usually takes about a decade. (It took that long to price me out of my Chicago loft.) Artists' studios mushroom in cheap, vacant buildings, followed by trendy retail and small businesses. Owners and investors begin to renovate, and the artiness attracts the attention of developers who either carve out loft-apartments or raze the warehouses to make way for new ones. Usually the artists get a little time to establish themselves before being priced out, and the neighborhood gets a chance to retain and build on its character.
The redevelopment of the Channel District has compressed this organic cycle. It's been more like a big bang, skipping all the in-between stages of renewal, going right from dilapidated cold storage to high-rise luxury living.
This was never a residential area. No offense to the urban pioneers who have lived here in the last 15 years, but for most of the last century this district was primarily a working (more or less) port, one that began to decline in the mid-'70s when containerized shipping was developed. The Ybor Channel's warehouses and ship's chandleries became increasingly vacant, mirroring the decline of downtown. Urban planner Michael English remembers Tampa's sorry nickname: "The city that wouldn't grow up until the very last minute."
The '90s brought some signs of hope: the glass-domed Florida Aquarium, the glass-cubed Port Authority building, the pick-up in cruise business. And the past five years saw the streetcar line, the Channelside entertainment complex and big clown-colored parking garages.
But then, in the last 12 months, an authentic building boom kicked in. The old fabric of the neighborhood is being completely covered over.
THE OPTIMIST: Michael English Michael English has worked for preservation and smart development of the Channel District for more than 20 years. He now works for the planning, design and engineering firm Wilson/Miller on the fourth floor of the new Port Authority building, from which he literally oversees the area's development.
English is sure that the neighborhood will be an economic success. He points out the window of the Port Authority to the earthmovers plowing dirt where the Kennedy Street Bridge used to block the skyline view.
He cites San Diego as a good model for the neighborhood's redevelopment. "Twenty years ago it was a dumpy medium-sized city, on a polluted harbor, with a depressed and deserted downtown." That sounds familiar. "They cleaned up the water, and built a light rail system. A new development, Horton Plaza, a vertical mall with six stories of open air at its core, became the anchor of their redeveloped downtown, which is also now full of urban housing."
How long before the condos are filled? "Five years," he answers without a pause. "There is a phenomenon where people's preferences are changing from suburban to urban living. Tired of the congestion, long commutes and the isolation of suburbia, they are returning to the cities, while suburban growth is slowing."
English and Markham's belief in the district's future as a great place to live almost has me convinced. I try going for a walk around the neighborhood, to see what's coming down, going up and hanging on, but the wrecking balls are flying. Bring a hardhat if you go house-hunting anytime soon.
URBAN PIONEERS: Jeff Whipple & The Markhams Displaced artist Jeff Whipple says that the Channel District's transition "is happening at warp speed." Whipple, who had to move from his rented studio, saw himself listed as an "amenity" on the web site of the looming Towers of Channelside planned development. As he was moving his paintings from his home/studio, he overheard one of his new but soon to be ex-neighbors comment, "What I love about this neighborhood is all the artists who live here."
But don't cry for Jeff. He has been given storage space in his former landlord's Channel District building. A few angels remain committed to the arts, good design and their visions of a lively and livable urban neighborhood.
Angels like Kim and Dr. Richard Markham, urban pioneers who lived in and ran an affordable medical clinic in the Channel District until a few weeks ago. They provided low-rent space to artists like Whipple. As early members of the Channel District Council, they steered redevelopment of the area toward a low-rise, walkable, creative environment. The Council works with the city, county and planners to return tax dollars to the neighborhood.
Kim credits County Commissioner Kathy Castor with convincing the commission to approve the Channel District's TIF proposal, which returns property tax money for redevelopment efforts in blighted neighborhoods. Although this helps with neighborhood improvements, it is also an incentive for development that would not necessarily benefit "the low and middle income residents" it was intended to help.
The biggest blow to the Channel District Council's efforts was last year's City Council vote to allow high-rise development. After an eight-hour meeting the Council voted to allow a developer's request to build 30-story towers in an area where the height limit had been 60 feet. The deadlocked Council vote went in favor of the developers after Mayor Iorio's representative voiced her support for the towers. Councilwomen Linda Saul-Sena and Rose Ferlita, longtime supporters of the neighborhood association, were the only votes against. After that, property values saw no height limit. The low-rise, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that the Markhams had fought for looked increasingly like a pipe dream. Ironically, the property tax increase made running a profitable medical clinic impossible, but it also meant that when they sold they would make an incredible return on their investment.
The Markhams sold their property to St. Petersburg developer Roger Gatewood, who will build The Villages of Channelside on the site. Gatewood met their requirements that the development be low-rise, include gallery and retail space and feel like a neighborhood.
In spite of the lost battle, Kim Markham believes in the future of the Channel District. "By 2006, the area is going to be exciting and fresh, but it is not going to be what we envisioned in 1993."
The Markhams are going home to Hawaii. Richard will continue to provide medical care to the needy on the island of Molokai. I suspect Kim will be back for key neighborhood, City Council and County Commission meetings.
WHO'S STAYING? WHO'S MOVING IN? There is a high level of confidence among developers, bankers, and real estate professionals that there is a ready-made market for the condo developments now being built. One good sign: banks are requiring high percentages of end-use presales versus investors. Prospective residents who put money down are not likely to forfeit a down payment, while investors looking to flip the property can abandon the deposit at a smaller risk. Presales have been brisk.
Still, current plans don't seem to include housing affordable to residents of low to moderate income, including the elderly. As the district makes the leap from blighted status to luxury living, the poor will be left behind, unless Granny can afford the penthouse. Meanwhile, a few intrepid artistic souls are hanging on.
STILL IN THE HOOD
Artists Unlimited, Inc., 223 N. 12th St.
Genie and Bill White's three-story former manufacturing building. Artists Unlimited, Inc., their not-for-profit artist studio cooperative, is on the first two floors; the Whites' live-in loft is on the third.
Studio Core, 108 N. 11th St.
A small warehouse building leased to artists for studio and gallery space.
Luisa Meshekoff, dancer, dance and yoga instructor, 204 N. 12th St.
Meshekoff has lived and worked in her 1926 brick building since 1994. She is in the process of renovating and obtaining historic designation for the building. Part of a family of New Yorker renovators, she jokes, "Our family motto is buy low, sell low." She is staying. "Ask me for coffee, ask me anything, but don't ask me to sell."
Dominique Martinez, the dragon guy, 114 S. 12th St.
You know, that drunk-looking sheet-metal dragon at Rustic Steel Creations on 12th Street. I hope Dominique and the dragon stay. They increase the funky factor immeasurably.
Stephen Dickey, sculptor, N. 12th and E. Twiggs streets
Sculpture studio in a former warehouse adjoining a charming brick building. If Dickey sells, it's a guaranteed teardown. High-rises likely.
Spectrum Video Production, 112 S. 12th St.
A truly tasteful renovation, and an example of what can go right in the district. Puts the lie to the argument that there is no building worth saving here and that everything must go.
Davis & Harmon, PA
Undergoing renovation and restoration by esteemed architect Steve Smith of Cooper Johnson Smith for law offices and first-floor retail. Along with Meshekoff's building, this may be the only charming historic brick building to survive.
Model-T Building and Victory Lofts, 12th and Whiting streets
Both buildings are fully occupied. Model T is a renovated four-story 1920s former car storage building. Real lofts, not just a feeling. Victory Lofts is a new seven-story building with neo-lofts. Slick industrial outside with balconies that look just like fire escapes. Don't look for a ladder, though.
Channelside 212, N. 12th St., between Kennedy Boulevard and Washington Street
Low-rise warehouse completely converted to loft condos with tasteful colors and wood entryways. Again, no vacancy.
The Meridian, Whiting St. at 12th St.
New lofts designed by Cooper Johnson Smith with a clean contemporary feel, and a touch of South Beach and cruise-ship deco. Respects the architectural history of the district, and stays within the scale of the neighborhood at six stories. If every development looked like this, I'd say buy, buy, buy!
Ventana, Kennedy Blvd. and Channelside Dr.
A mid-rise luxury condo with a contemporary design by Ybor City's Walt Chancey Architects. Big windows (ventana is Spanish for window), big balconies, a terrace pool overlooking the port and an emphasis on amenities.
Grand Central at Kennedy, Kennedy Boulevard and Meridian Street
A mid-rise office, retail and residential development. More than half of the 393 condominium units have been sold. A grocery store is expected to sign on soon. Developer Ken Stoltenberg is donating rent-free spaces to the Stage Works theatre company and an art gallery.
Channelside 1000, Channelside Drive at Washington Street
Low-rise loft development on Channelside across from the Port Authority. New Orleans/Ybor City-influenced design.
The Villages of Channelside, bordered by Meridian, Whiting, S. 12th streets
The Markhams approved the low- and mid-rise buildings with their own sidewalks and paths for a small neighborhood feel. Retail and gallery space on street side.
The Place at Channelside, N. 12th Street, between Washington and Whiting streets
They advertise "resort style," and it does look cushy. Condos surround a landscaped courtyard pool. Tampa dog owners can escape the dog park controversy at the fifth-floor pet park. Pedestrian-friendly design is slated to include street-level art gallery and retail. Sidewalks are advertised as "a first in Tampa" on the web site (I didn't know things were that bad). Developer wants to change the plans to 30 stories.
Seaport Town Centre at Channelside, between the Expressway and Twiggs Street
Drawings show the Disney version of small-town Main Street with awnings, stucco and wrought iron. Just close your eyes and plug your ears and you might not notice the Leroy Selmon traffic whizzing by. The good news is they promise a grocery store and retail.
Towers of Channelside, bordered by Channelside Drive, Meridian Street and Cumberland Avenue
Two 30-story towers with 260 condominiums. High-rise, high-end development that set the neighborhood on its slippery slope upward. At the same meeting that the developers were granted the 30-story approval, the City gave the developer the right of way on 11th Street, to pave over with a three-and-a-half-acre parking garage.
Two 41-story towers (known as O2) and a much-debated Space Needle. The project sits on the other side of Meridian from the official borders of the Channel District, but it'll be hard to miss.
CREATIVE CLASS OR VERTICAL SUBURBIA? I look into my crystal ball and see a shiny new neighborhood, coffee shops, art galleries and grocery stores. You won't have to leave the building for any of it if you live in one of the towers. But opt for a neo-loft and you can walk outside and have a coffee, a meal, do a little shopping, look at some art, even walk to work. For downtown Tampa, this is huge.
My crystal ball becomes clearer and I see… Starbucks, Walgreen's, Bennigan's. Sadly, I can't see places here like the 12th Street Skate Park, The Taco Bus or El Molino coffee shop. The locally owned and flavored businesses that make Tampa wonderful won't be able to afford the rent.
To prospective residents who want to escape the sameness of the suburbs, I say beware of vertical suburbia. There are some beautiful buildings on the drawing board, but I fear the small-scale renovations and reproductions that respect the neighborhood's history will be overshadowed by the generic post-modern pastiches of their taller neighbors. Penthouse and tower dwellers may have a view of the water, but for most residents the view will be of their neighbor's glass and concrete. Congestion is guaranteed by a neighborhood that will go from 30 residents to almost 6,000 in five years. Green space is not on the map yet, and it is hard to see where park space can possibly be squeezed in.
Again, Tampa suffers from delayed adolescence. First we build, then we plan.
The neighborhood association efforts have convinced some developers to set aside affordable space for galleries and performance spaces. They'd be prudent to do so. Otherwise the guy with the spanking new loft won't be able to love his artsy neighborhood. The association also wants to use TIF money to maintain affordable housing, plan for green space, bury utilities (last year's hurricane season saw residents dancing around live wires) and upgrade the 50-year-old stormwater system. This money, which is meant to provide housing to low-income neighborhoods, in this case is going to be a 30-year gift to the well-off residents of the new Channel District.
This new urban fabric will be woven of synthetic, with a few strands of vintage cotton and silk interspersed. Will it retain any of its old character? Not much. If Luisa and the dragon hold out, Spectrum Video stays, architects like Steve Smith keep their hand in, and the developers and city listen to Michael English and the Channel District Council, a few patches will remain. Those are a lot of ifs. But there'll be one consolation. Once the new Tampa Bay History Center is completed, you'll be able to walk down and find out what your brave new neighborhood used to be.