Transforming Tampa Bay: Our streetcars, and their original Tampa Heights home, are evolving

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Tampa’s streetcars were a force in the community’s evolution, sparking investment and affording easy mobility. Fast-forward 100 years, and streetcar-related efforts are again moving things ahead.

An ambitious makeover is underway for the 70,000-square-foot red-brick streetcar barn, located in Tampa Heights adjacent to the Waterfront Park. After the Architectural Review Commission (ARC) blessed their plans on May 4, SoHo Capital developers are moving full speed ahead to create an adaptive reuse of the historic Armature Works Building as a mixed-use event, entertainment and market hall.

Working with Mesh Architecture, Adam Harden and Chas Bruck of SoHo Capital are reimagining the space. They purchased this building as well as 45 adjacent acres, declaring that the hall would be the centerpiece of the Heights development, which will also include 2.2 million square feet of residential and office uses (including the recently announced tenant SofWorX, an “idea lab” for U.S. Special Forces).

“Beyond anchoring the urban redevelopment project, the Heights Market Hall… is intended to create a place with heart and soul which dovetails with the established neighborhoods and rich history which surrounds the project,” explained Adam Harden. “Our plans strike a balance between the old and the new.”

Built in 1913 to house the Tampa Electric Street and Railroad Company, this massive structure originally housed 12 tracks for the streetcars and one huge repair bay, plus office space and even a community theater space. Streetcar storage and repair were the primary uses for the building until 1949, when it was purchased by Tampa Armature Works and used to make and repair electrical equipment, ending that function in 2005.

The Heights Market Hall plans include a 10,000-square-foot interior courtyard (The Gathering) which can be used for special events. During the public hearing, the developers said that markets in Washington D.C. and Milwaukee inspired their creation of a food hall, with seven established local businesses already lined up as anchor tenants.

Ron Vila, an ARC staff member, complimented the extensive rehab which has already taken place at this local landmark, including repointing the bricks, restoring the windows and repairing the period skylights and roof.

Dramatic water views to the south, facing the bend in the Hillsborough River, will be framed by the massive iron bays which provide a vista of downtown. “Glass windows will be recessed 10 feet, so that the facade will maintain its historic feeling,” architect Tim Clemmons explained. “We’ll also keep the original interior trusses and crane.”

The historic eastern side will have a new staircase and elevator, slightly detached from the structure and modern, in order to identify it clearly as not part of the original building, but deftly scaled to fit into the facade.

Plans include extending 7th Avenue around the building to Palm Avenue, creating a new “Main Street” along the western elevation. Careful restoration of the north, east and south facades will be augmented on the west by a two-story market and the covered courtyard venue.

Just as the streetcars originally animated our urban core, so this new hub of music, food, and special events promises to energize this magic part of Tampa, blending the rich texture of the century-old building with vibrant fresh uses.

Speaking of streetcars…
Newsflash! The rubber-wheeled trolleys which have provided 25-cent trips weekdays from 6-8:30 a.m. and 3:30-6 p.m. connecting downtown and the Channel District are being rebranded and relaunched by July 1. Shedding their yellow exteriors for vibrant colorful decals, the trolleys are considering expanding new routes while remaining affordable, running every 15 minutes at lunch downtown.

“Trolleys are the gateway experience for transit users,” explained Katharine Eagan, executive director of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, who rolled out this initiative at the May 18 meeting of HART’s marketing and finance committee. The committee is supporting this innovative program, hoping that trolley users will move on to try other forms of transit.

Clearly a HART vehicle, the trolley is being rebranded to appear more modern, a non-bus bus — a bus that’s dressed up like a streetcar. Since HART is committed to using this vehicle until 2019, they’ve decided to redefine its use and appearance. The authority is seeking partnerships with businesses and neighborhoods for contributions to the cost of the service in return for providing the convenient transit option. For example, partiers along Howard Avenue could hop on it, traveling easily from venue to venue. ”This change can be an economic boost for ridership and expand public perception of transit,” commented Wallace Bowers, a HART board member.

Cities evolve, and their transportation technologies and activities are constantly changing, too. There’s never an excuse for boredom in the urban core. 

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