Editorial: Transforming the USF area in north Tampa

There are few places in the region where it pays to step back and appreciate the big picture more than the university area of north Tampa. Major employers there are investing hundreds of millions of dollars. Government and the business community are looking to partner on new mass transit services. And efforts to build an innovation district are at the forefront of the goal of improving incomes, housing and health care in the community. It won’t happen overnight, but the leadership and commitments are in place to change the dynamics of a long-struggling area.

For decades the community was associated with three major institutions: the University of South Florida, Busch Gardens and the renamed University Mall. Over the years, an influx of rental properties and publicly subsidized housing changed the demographics of what had been a suburban community amid a campus setting. Major hospitals in the area also took off, drawing new traffic to an area that largely had been the domain of students and visitors. The university area is now a busy, diverse destination for tens of thousands of students, faculty, researchers, health care professionals, retailers, tourists, consumers and more in a packed urban setting about 10 miles north of downtown.

The growth has spawned a building boom. Five key players expect to invest more than $1.5 billion over the coming decade. The projects range from USF’s $135 million student village to $800 million in clinical care and other facilities at Moffitt Cancer Center to $250 million in patient care improvements at Florida Hospital. In March, the New York owners of University Mall unveiled plans to revamp the 50-year-old facility, which would turn the 100 acres into an open-air development with a mix of uses that could include $240 million in residential and retail development over the next decade. Hillsborough County plans to spend $100 million on public infrastructure in the next eight years. And the district’s job development arm, Tampa’s !p, formerly the Tampa Innovation Alliance, is working with state and local partners to establish circulator shuttle service to the major destinations in the area this year.

The combined investment reflects strong confidence among these major area employers. The shuttle project alone shows how these companies are building a critical mass. With 74,000 jobs inside the district’s 25,000-acre boundary, the market for live/work/play development seems healthy. The area already is a hub for technology and startups. The growth of the university and its surrounding medical facilities will only strengthen the appeal of locating high tech and research-based employment nearby.

These jobs, and the housing, infrastructure and private sector investment that follows, are key to building incomes and raising living standards in the university area. The commitment by these employers offers the chance to give the area a fresh start with a modern identity. Mark Sharpe, the former Hillsborough County commissioner who heads !p, is building the right relationships and focusing on key priorities, transportation first among them. This is an important new nerve center for Tampa, Hillsborough and Temple Terrace. It deserves to stay on the region’s radar.

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