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Exclusive Interview with Jeff Vinik and Bob Buckhorn

January 30, 2017 | Tampa Magazine | City,Features

A glimpse into Downtown Tampa’s future with Jeff Vinik and Bob Buckhorn.         

Written By McKenna Kelley | Photography By Gabriel Burgos | Interview By Shawna Wiggs

A Note from the Publisher, Greg Jasso:

TAMPA Magazine’s office has been located on Harbour Island — in the shadow of Downtown Tampa — for the past 14 years. During that time we’ve had a front row seat from which to view and experience the cycles of momentum and decline. Boom and bust. Excitement and despair and every other emotion in between.

The last time we got excited about the momentum downtown was the period between 2005 and 2007. Cranes dotted the skyline, and new residential towers kept rising skyward in the Channel District and downtown. I remember seeing renderings for at least another dozen planned tower projects that were on the drawing board but not yet under construction.

Then came the great recession of 2008. Construction downtown ground to a halt, and almost every tower under construction went into bankruptcy. The negative news cycle pertaining to downtown development projects did not stop for years. I remember asking a business neighbor of mine how long he thought the repercussions from the recession would last. A year or two? I wondered. Try seven or eight, he said. As it turns out, he was right, I was wrong.

Then a couple of years ago, things started to look up, even if only a little. Advertisers were starting to return to the pages of our magazines, and we saw new businesses popping up everywhere around Tampa, even downtown. The downtown towers that were previously in bankruptcy were now essentially full of renting tenants, so businesses started to take the required leap of faith and opened their new doors.

Public parks have been completed, and more are being added. The Riverwalk, which now stretches close to 2.5 miles with more to come, has become a people magnet that has begun to connect businesses, public spaces, cultural destinations and new downtown residences. It has opened the water to the public and is now a real and significant uninterrupted walkway.

And this time, the positive outlook seems different. It seems like the momentum is here to stay — even if everyone we speak to is only cautiously optimistic. Curtis Hixon, Water Works and Contanchobee Parks are always brimming with activity, even when they’re not hosting events. And once again, construction cranes dot the skyline.

The river and channel waterways that surround downtown are now teeming with activity. We used to look outside our office window and see the occasional University of Tampa rowing teams go by. Today, there are regularly running water taxis, the new ferry between Downtown Tampa and St. Pete, guided sightseeing tours, rental boats, water bikes, kayaks and more.

But the topic creating the most buzz among me and my fellow downtown business neighbors is the the massive downtown real estate development project led by Strategic Property Partners, a joint venture between Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, LLC. Since announcing his plans, other projects all over town have either started construction or are in the planning stages.

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TM: How many people do you estimate work downtown currently? What is your estimate for five to ten years from now?

BUCKHORN: It ebbs and flows because a lot of the people come from the suburbs into Downtown Tampa. The number that we have from the Downtown Partnership right now is about 60,000 plus. That could double or triple in the next 10 years. Obviously office construction is going to be a big part of facilitating that growth. The move of the USF medical school and USF Heart Institute is an absolutely pivotal event that is about to occur. We think there is a demand for more commercial office space. Jeff has it as part of his plans. And there are other folks who are poking around trying to do some additional office development as well. Residential [development] is just blowing up.

TM: Which brings me to my next question. how many people currently live in downtown? How many do you expect will live there in the next five to 10 years?

BUCKHORN: The Downtown Partnership estimates that about 8,000 people live downtown currently, and that includes Harbour Island and Channelside. Now bear in mind, when I left [Tampa City Council] office in 2002, there were 600 people who lived in Downtown Tampa, and 300 of them lived in the Morgan Street Jail. True story. So you see how far we’ve come. And again, we estimate 3,000 to 4,000 residential units in the next 18 to 24 months, right, Jeff?

VINIK: Absolutely, yes.

BUCKHORN: That’s not even including the five-year plan and the 10-year plan. So you could see that double to triple as well. Once you create that critical mass where people are living, working and playing, then it becomes that 24-hour-a-day-city. Then you have the requirements for all the amenities Jeff is putting into his project – the retail, the grocery stores, the bars and the restaurants. That all follows the “heads in the beds.”

TM: We’ve heard that this development project will be one of the largest, if not the largest, projects of its kind in the U.S. Are there any other projects in the U.S. that you would say are similar to this scale?

VINIK: You know, there aren’t. Believe me, we’ve traveled around, and James Nozar [CEO of Strategic Property Partners, a partnership between Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, LLC], knows, we’ve been to about 10 to 20 locations in the U.S. Around the country, there is a lot of activity where there’s movement back to the urban core going on, but in terms of anything to model ourselves after, what we’re doing is stealing the best ideas from all of them. Tampa is Tampa. We’re not Miami – we’re very different. We’re not Denver, which has had great success moving people back [to their urban core]. We’re not Austin. We’re kind of close to San Diego, there are similarities there. That may be the best analogy I can think of. But we want to be very careful. We want to learn the lessons from all these other places. We don’t want to be any of these other places. We must keep authenticity. This must be Tampa, and that’s why it’s going to be successful. People are going to feel great about their city and that it’s unique.

TM: Following up on that question, are there any downtown projects you admire or wanted to emulate? For instance, L.A. Live in Los Angeles, California?

VINIK: We talked about L.A. Live from the beginning, and we’re not building it. That’s not an analogy for what we’re doing. We’re not building an entertainment district. We’re not building an arena district. We’re building half a city. We’re building a vibrant, walkable urban district with high density, which has the arena as one of the great amenities of the district. We’re doing office buildings and residential towers and USF’s Morsani College of Medicine, two hotels, two or three cultural institutions, water features, public art and the channel. We can go on and on with all the great amenities. This is major progress to the downtown of Tampa, and I’m sure the mayor would agree that hopefully in 10 to 15 years our district will seamlessly connect to the center and the core of downtown, and that’ll even seamlessly connect to Ybor. That’s where this thing is heading. Imagine what this place will be like when we get there.

TM: A key feature of your development includes a central cooling facility that allows the rooftops of your buildings to be opened up for rooftop bars and restaurants. Are there any cities that you feel have successfully implemented these tactics?

VINIK: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I know the answer to that. But we see elements of that. I was in someone’s office in New York about a month ago, and I started looking down, and I started seeing green rooftops in New York City. I hadn’t noticed them before. I took some pictures of them and never did anything with the pictures. I imagine – I have not been to Portland or Seattle much, and I haven’t thought about it – but I imagine they have similarities in some respects. At one point we even thought about calling ourselves the Rooftop District because there are potentially going to be different experiences on different rooftops throughout the area.

BUCKHORN: The fundamentals for a successful, walkable, pedestrian-oriented city are the same. It is green space, it is public art, it is amenities, it’s those little surprises that you come across as you’re walking through the city that you don’t expect. They could be big, they could be small. Wide sidewalks, the landscape treatment. So I don’t know that we’re replicating anything, but the building blocks are the same. We just have to adapt it to who we are. The one thing that we have that most other cities don’t have is the water. That is the great gathering point now. It didn’t used to be, but it is now, and we need to maximize it. That’s what separates us from most other American cities and gives us a competitive advantage, that now all of a sudden, we’ve discovered our waterfront after 100 years. When you think about it, people love to gather along the water. When you have a district like this district, you’re encompassed and wrapped by water in a city that’s wrapped by water. A lot of the stuff that Jeff is doing in terms of the healthy district and the wellness district, that’s very unique, and that’s going to separate us from our competitors in a significant way.

TM: Tampa will be the first city in the world to feature a WELL certified district. Could you tell us more about that and what went into the decision to make that happen?

VINIK: WELL Certification is analogous to the LEED certification process, where LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] is for the environmental and energy efficiency of buildings. WELL is for the health of the inhabitants of buildings. I was introduced to a couple of guys from New York – the Scialla Brothers. They started a company called Delos several years ago, and it has been, up to now, about the health and wellness of people inside buildings, making buildings have better air quality, circadian lighting for your energy levels, better water, fruits and vegetables throughout – dozens of factors to make it more healthy to be in a building.

What we’re doing in our district, not only will our buildings try to be WELL Certified, the whole district is going to be WELL Certified. That means we have to have a certain amount of our space allocated for bike paths, a certain amount for jogging paths, a certain amount for sidewalks. Walkability is a huge factor in people’s wellness. We need to be selling fruits and vegetables – and why wouldn’t we – on the street. We need to monitor air quality. We need to have water fountains, or as we call them, hydration stations, every certain amount of feet and dozens of other characteristics like that. All of this [will be] coming together to make the outdoor areas in our district the best possible for people’s health.

When thinking about people’s health, I go back to walkability. If people walk two blocks every day because they want to get a sandwich at a restaurant instead of taking their car, over a year or over several years, that adds up and improves peoples’ health. Taking the stairs up one or two flights every day instead of taking the elevator adds up.

This is going to be an attractor for companies because they want to reduce their healthcare bill but also because they want to attract the best employees, and, especially young people these days, it’s all about health and wellness. It’s probably the biggest social trend that’s going on. We’re going to be able to offer that not just for our buildings but for our district in general, which is going to attract companies and people. We think it’s a key differentiator with what we have going on.

BUCKHORN: You know what it means to me? I’m not going to be able to walk through this district smoking my cigars. [Both laugh] I’ll have to stop at the edge of the district.

TM: Mayor Buckhorn, this one is for you. Both the Riverwalk and the current parks seem to be a home run.

BUCKHORN: I hope so.

VINIK: Hat trick.

BUCKHORN: Yeah, that’s right. Wrong sport. Yeah, I think they will be over time.

TM: Will you tell us a little about the expansion?

BUCKHORN: I think we probably have added more urban parks, particularly in the downtown area, than any mayor has ever. If you start at Perry Harvey Park and then you continue all the way through to what we’re about to do on Riverfront Park on the west side of the Hillsborough River, which will be a 23-acre, $35 million transformation of a park that’s on the water, it’s pretty significant.

For me, those parks – they’re not my legacy– but they are a gift to future generations. Those parks become a gathering point for a community. If you assume that downtown is everybody’s front door, it’s important that you have those gathering spaces where everybody from the community, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can feel comfortable coming. If you look at Curtis Hixon on any weekend and you go down there and see the plethora of events that we do, catering to everybody, that’s what parks do. They expose the urban core to people who may not come there but for the fact there is an organized event. It could be a jazz fest, it could be the African-American history festival, it could be anything. But those parks make a difference.

If you don’t preserve green space in your urban core, shame on you. That’s like neutral turf. That belongs to the community. I think when we’re done our downtown will be very green. It will be very user-friendly. But it starts with those building blocks, and parks are a part of that.

VINIK: When I mentioned before [in an earlier answer] that we envision a connection of Ybor and our new district downtown and the central area downtown, I should have said at the same time there will be a connection going across the Hillsborough River to the west bank area. That comes into play with the park [Riverfront Park] that the mayor was talking about earlier. I had not thought about that, and then one day I read in the paper that the Hillsborough River should be the middle of the city, and I said, that’s brilliant. How transformative is that? And that’s going to happen. It’ll take time, but it’s going to happen.

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TM: Over time, how far do you expect the Riverwalk to expand?

BUCKHORN: My hope is, and I’m probably not going to be the mayor when it’s finished, but my hope is eventually that you can start at [the intersection of] Gandy and Bayshore, and you can run all the way downtown and pick the side of the river that you choose to go on.

The west side will not be as elaborate and will not be out over the water like the east side is, but with all the projects that are about to take place on the west side of the river, beginning with the Tribune building and running all the way up to Rick’s on the River, there will be a Riverwalk there. We’ve already got it constructed through Plant Park, we own the easement behind Tampa [Preparatory School], so that will be done. It will run through Riverfront Park. It’s already in place behind Blake High School.

And then as we build out the west river, when we knock down the [former] public housing projects on the west side, it will run all the way up through that project, and eventually probably to Columbus Drive. Ideally, in 10 years, hopefully less, you’ll be able to choose the side of the river on which you choose to walk, run or ride. And then you can make the whole circuit and connect to Bayshore and all the way down to Gandy.

TM: Any other parks in the downtown footprint you want to highlight?

BUCKHORN: I think Perry Harvey Park would be the first one. That pays homage to the history of our African-American community. It may be the largest expenditure of public dollars on a park that does that in the state of Florida. Where that park is located used to be the heart and soul of our African-American community, so if you go into that park, it literally pays homage to some of the forefathers and mothers that came before us that helped to build the African-American community. So that’s about an 8-acre park.

Curtis Hixon, which was done before I got there, that was Mayor Iorio’s vision, and it was a pivotal event in the development of downtown. That’s about 5 acres. You got 23 [acres] on the west side of the Hillsborough River [the aforementioned Riverfront Park]. You’ve got whatever parks will be incorporated into the west river project. Plant Park is already in the middle of that. It’s pretty exciting. There’s others outside of the downtown area that we’ve done, but those are the major investments that we’ve made in the downtown core.

TM: Mr. Vinik, in your development, are there any parks you have on the books you’d like to highlight?

VINIK: We have several additional parks as well as several other gathering spaces.

BUCKHORN: I hope so. Buckhorn Park will be one of those. With a big statue of me. [laughs]

TM: With a cigar? [laughs]

VINIK: And a hot dog. [laughs] Some could be more urban-looking parks than traditional green spaces. Our Channelside Bay Plaza –we’ve previewed some of those plans publicly, and there’s a beautiful park that we plan to put there right on the water also. When you have lots of green spaces and lots of trees, you can lower the temperature by 5 or 10 degrees, and it has a significant effect.

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TM: Regarding conventions and the positive impact on the city’s economy, we’ve noticed that we tend to fall behind Orlando and Miami as the best convention cities. One factor is that we have fewer hotel rooms than those cities. Mr. Vinik, you have two hotels as part of your plan, so are there any other plans to help Tampa become more competitive for conventions?

VINIK: I don’t know if it’s fair to compare Tampa to Orlando, but I will make a point. Our convention center does extremely well. Our hotels in this city do very well. We’re building another 700 hotel rooms, and there are a couple of other hotels going up, so that [number] is going to expand. But our convention center does well with very few amenities nearby. Imagine when this [development] all comes to life. Our demand for convention business is going to go up a lot, and our demand for hotel rooms is going to go up a lot.

BUCKHORN: You know, Jeff owns the Marriott Waterside, and with the addition of what he’s planning with his project. . . He’s absolutely right, we’re not competing with Orlando. Orlando is an entirely different market. Orlando, Las Vegas and Chicago deal with the mega, mega-conventions where you need a couple hundred thousand square feet. That’s not our niche.

In our niche – and we never planned the convention center to fill that [mega-convention] niche – we can compete for 80 percent of the rest of the business, and we have done very, very well. Our tourist development tax revenues have never been higher than they were this year. We’re killing it in terms of bed tax revenue and revenues per room rate. It really is allowing us to take that next step.

There will be other hotels that are planned. As a matter of fact, the city just sold a block of land across from city hall that will be a 23-story tower. It will be a Hyatt Centric on the first few stories and then residential up above it.

I think what you’re going to see over the next 10 years is the addition of a couple thousand hotel rooms that will be added to the mix – and it will be walkable. Like Jeff said, one of the challenges that we’ve had here, with the exception of the Marriott Waterside and the Embassy Suites, is people have to get in their cars to go places. But when you start to build that city and connect all those dots and you have things like Uber and Lyft and the Downtowner available to people, and you have the restaurants and the retail and the Riverwalk, they don’t have to leave downtown. We’ll capture all that business here.

TM: With water transportation and recreation options growing rapidly downtown, the Downtowner free ride service, for example, has been very successful, what are the plans for expansion of that program?

BUCKHORN: You know, it’s interesting. [The Downtowner] was a test project, and it’s done very, very well. The city subsidizes it to some degree through what’s called the CRA’s [Community Redevelopment Districts], which is revenue generated within the district that has to remain in the district. I think the ability to expand that is pretty significant.

Five years ago, when this type of service was talked about, it was the PTC [Public Transportation Commission] that killed it – the very PTC that tried to kill Uber and Lyft. Since they [The PTC] are no longer a factor to any degree, I think it’s going to open up the door to more and more of those carts around downtown.

Uber and Lyft will continue to have a place here, as they should. We’re looking at the expansion of the streetcar potentially up Florida Avenue, perhaps even as far up as Tampa Heights, because as you think about the redevelopment of Tampa Heights and the Armature Works building there, you want the ability to connect all the segments of the city. If you can get from Ybor City to Tampa Heights to downtown in a continuous loop with a reasonable cost and hours that make sense, then all of a sudden you’ve started to connect the entire area and people truly can live, work and play – jump on the trolley, jump in an Uber, jump on the Downtowner and come downtown and move around, which is what you want.

TM: Generally, what else needs to happen in or around downtown to make the city’s roadways and public and private transportation more efficient and effective? What other investments or enhancements need to be made or added?

BUCKHORN: You want to start on this one, Jeff?

VINIK: [laughs]

BUCKHORN: Since you and I are on the same page. [laughs]

VINIK: I’m co-chairing a committee for the Tampa Bay Partnership. The Tampa Bay Partnership represents the business community of the whole Tampa Bay area, so I’m co-chairing a committee there looking at transportation.

There’s a premium transit study going on for the whole region going on right now. Jacobs Engineering is leading that effort. It’s [Florida Department of Transportation]-funded. Looking at our transportation system for the whole eight-county region, and you know how bullish I am on economic growth in this area, I think we have the potential from here through Orlando, even to Daytona, but especially over on this side of the state, to be the fastest-growing major economic region in the country over the next 10 to 20 years.

That opportunity is there, and in my opinion, what could screw that up or constrain that would be transportation – roadways too clogged, inability for people to get from point A to point B, people stop moving in because they no longer have confidence that they can get around. As a leader in the business community, I’m going to be one who’s trying to look at all possible solutions for helping out on that subject.

I think, as this study is underway, I’m encouraged to hear that they’re looking at all possible solutions. You’ve got to talk about the streetcars, as the mayor said. You’ve got to include autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing. Bus rapid transit is not talked about much, but it could be a very effective form of transportation. Clearly light rail needs to be part of the discussion.

BUCKHORN: HOV lanes [high-occupancy vehicle lanes].

VINIK: Yes, HOV lanes. I’m optimistic about this study, which is really going to look at all these different solutions to try to figure out what’s best and most flexible for our region. Looking out at our long-term horizon, I’m really hopeful. Talking to business people and others in the community, I really sense that people understand what a critical issue [transportation] is. However that evolves and whether there’s another referendum or not or however that goes on, I think the region understands how important this is, and action will be taken in the years ahead to really enable us to have this growth.

BUCKHORN: You know, it’s all about mobility options. We as a state have relied on roads for so long because, historically, we’ve always had a suburban mentality. Subdivision after subdivision was built because land was cheaper for the developers to buy it, and development would keep going and going and going.

That can’t work anymore. It won’t work. Our ability to link the metropolitan areas of the state – from Jacksonville to Orlando to Lakeland to Tampa to Miami – is critical, but also internally, too. Like with what Jeff was talking about when he laid out that menu of options, it’s not just one quick fix. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Rail has got to be a component of it. Whether it’s high-speed rail, which we could have had by now, or whether it’s internal, connecting downtown to the airport, eventually downtown to the airport to downtown St. Pete. Downtown to USF and the employment centers on the north end of Tampa. Downtown to Pasco County, where our population doubles because of the growth from Pasco County every day that drives down Bruce B. Downs and down I-75 into Downtown Tampa where they work.

We’ve got to be willing to lay out what that vision is, recognize that it’s not cheap, and it’s certainly not free, and then go do it and get it done. The political winds will do what they’re going to do, but we just have to be focused. I think if the business community drives that discussion more than the politicians, we’re much better off.

TM: In summary, is there anything else either of you would like to mention regarding the development of downtown?

BUCKHORN: For the younger generation, this is going to be a really cool place. For the demographics of TAMPA Magazine’s readers and for the people who are moving here and for the people who have the buying power – [Tampa is] right in that sweet spot.

It’s really exciting for old guys like us to be a part of this, and eventually, 10 years down the road, to see the fruits of our labor and to know that we have changed a city, ultimately, that’s going to be a pretty cool thing.

VINIK: I lived in New York for 25 years and Boston for 25 years. They’re great cities, but you can’t move the needle there. I come here and get up every day and know that I’m trying to make a difference. I like to say that I’m trying to help with the quantity of people’s lives and quality of people’s lives. Quantity means more people in the area, quality means better jobs and better wages. It’s a lot of fun to hopefully help economic development.

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