An old, dwindling remnant of the old world of retail shopping is being taken under the wing of renovations to give a half-mile of Fowler Avenue a new look.
The University Mall area is being entirely renovated and restructured into what will be known as “Rithm at Uptown,” an urban neighborhood development that will house not only people, but restaurants, shops and burgeoning technology and science companies. The project, which has been in the works for over five years by RD Management, will cost over $1 billion.
“It’s definitely in the $1 billion-plus range,” said Christopher Bowen, chief development strategist at RD Management. “It’s hard to pin it down because this kind of project [is] so large that you can nail pieces of it with a few buildings here or there, but to fully understand how the whole thing will rise up and how high it will rise is a question mark.
“But even on a bad day, the way [the project’s] master plan, according to the rezoning in the master plan that was approved by Hillsborough County, this is minimally a billion-dollar real estate development. It could go to $2 billion and beyond.”
The project is expected to be completed within the next five years, according to Bowen. It will entail over 7 million square feet of development, keeping some of the mall’s existing infrastructure while making other new additions. In the end, the development will have several multistory buildings with streets running through them accompanied by wide sidewalks for residents and visitors to stroll through outdoors.
Construction has already begun for the area, starting with the demolition of the Sears department store, clearing about 17 to 20 acres to build a $60 million student apartment complex and a two-tower business hotel.
RD Management’s goal isn’t just to refigure University Mall and its accompanying spaces. It wants to create a community of businesses and researchers that will pour into what used to be a center of retail, planting a city-style community along Fowler Avenue, with walkable paths and streets lined with shopping and outdoor dining.
“If [the] project is completed to its whole vision, it’s going to transform that entire area along Fowler [Avenue] as you get closer to I-275 in that area,” said instructor at the USF Department of Economics Chris Jones.
“To be able to deliver those types of higher-end uses, particularly with the residential to have some degree of a live-work atmosphere where you can have professionals and students working and studying at USF but living right there in that area. That whole area … west of Bruce B. Downs along Fowler could really change that entire sub market into something … that we have not seen in this area in a long time.”
Rithm at Uptown will call District 3 of Hillsborough County, which includes some of Lutz, the University Area, Seminole Heights and Temple Terrace, home. As its representative, Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers is glad to see this progress, noting it as a “win-win” for District 3 residents.
“To see them putting the efforts into renovating the mall … it’s going to bring good economic impact to our community [and] jobs for individuals that are living out in that community,” said Myers.
Bowen said the project is trying to avoid displacement of local residents as renovations begin, and creating a development centered around the community will aid in this endeavor.
“Displacement is something we’re trying to halt, we’re trying to get a handle on,” said Bowen.
“It’s not gentrification … [gentrification] is just improvement over an area, but displacement is one of the byproducts of it … and it’s when you don’t really do development that well … It’s when you don’t really build community, you’re just building buildings. But if you’re building a community, then displacement is important to you.”
One way the project hopes to do this is by drawing in companies from a variety of industries with “attractive” job opportunities that include minimal training time and well-paying salaries, like the medical software company Epic, according to Bowen.
“There [are] a couple of training programs that will train someone from early high school level all the way up in about 12 to 20 weeks,” said Bowen.
“They can train people with no experience in Epic software, a piece of delivering that software, being able to support it within a health system or medical group, and they can, with six months or less, have the skills that are valued at like $45,000 to $60,000 starting.”
By working with community organizations such as the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC), RD Management hopes to streamline employment opportunities and training programs like the one from Epic to residents of the University Area.
“We can bring … this Epic training program into our uptown neighborhood. We can work with UACDC … [Hillsborough Community College], whoever wants to tie in so that we can get into the community and we can find people who want to take this program on,” said Bowen.
With over 100 acres of ground to cover, the project formally took two years to have its zoning repurposed through the Planning Commission of Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough County Commission.
“There’s nothing like this Rithm development in the uptown community right now. It’s really a project that we’re hoping will shape the uptown community, will create opportunities and a template for everyone,” said Bowen.
The development isn’t just new to the eyes of the community; It’s also new to the paperwork at the municipal level that go into approving construction projects. The last five years of planning have consisted of having to define the logistics of an urban neighborhood development in the University Area, with RD Management having to develop “urban guidelines” that would define how the development would look.
“We had to create … urban guidelines, a thick document that goes through all of … the details of how you build and design an urban neighborhood,” said Bowen.
Although the project is uncharted territory for the University Area, its placement along Fowler Avenue could spill over and have an even broader impact on the street, according to Jones.
“I think something like this that can integrate all these uses in that form can create an entire renaissance that not only spilled throughout the boundaries of that project but … could be a catalyst for transforming the south side of Fowler as well,” said Jones.