Tampa's latest hot spot is Steiner + Associates' Centro Ybor. Several members of the team responsible for developing the popular CocoWalk in Miami are hoping to repeat their success with a similar project on the opposite side of the state. With financial backing from Atlanta-based BVT Capital Partners XI Ltd., Steiner + Associates of Columbus, Ohio, and The Sembler Cos. of St. Petersburg, Fla., just completed Centro Ybor, a 250,000 sq.ft., $45 million "leisure time" complex in Tampa's Ybor City intended as the catalyst for redevelopment of the downtown historic district.

The complex includes a 20-screen Muvico theater, 23,800-sq.-ft. GameWorks entertainment center, 70,000 sq. ft. of retail, a half dozen restaurants and 10,000 sq. ft. of nighttime entertainment space. In conjunction with the project, the city's redevelopment agency built a $12 million parking garage on an adjacent block.

According to Jay Miller, executive vice president of Steiner + Associates, the project had its origin in 1996 when Steiner and Sembler were working on development of CocoWalk. He says a group of private investors, impressed with the plans for the Miami project, invited the team to visit the Ybor City area and explore the possibility of creating something similar in Tampa.

The team members quickly fell in love with the district, says John Clark, president of Development Design Group in Baltimore, which designed CocoWalk and agreed to handle the Tampa project as well. "The area is very enchanting," he declares. "It has an urban scale that feels wonderful to walk around in. It's based on the traditional grid system of American cities, yet it has a character that comes from a mixture of the ethnic backgrounds that have lived and worked there."

A rich heritage At the time, Ybor City was undergoing a modest revival of nighttime activity along its Seventh Street spine, but the area as a whole was largely deteriorated. The district dates back to the 1880s when Vicente Martinez Ybor built what was to become the world's largest cigar factory just outside the small community of Tampa. Other cigar factories soon located nearby and by 1900 Tampa and Ybor City had a combined population of 30,000, the majority immigrants from Italy and the Spanish speaking countries of Central and South America. Eventually Ybor City boasted nearly 70 cigar factories, rivaling Havana as the cigar capital of the world.

The immigrants gave the area a decidedly Mediterranean and Caribbean flavor, both culturally and architecturally, creating an environment many compared to New Orleans both in style and appearance. By 1950, however, most of the factories had shut down and Ybor City went into serious decline. At the same time, Tampa, which long ago had absorbed the other town, began to ascend as a popular destination for people from the north seeking an escape from harsh winters.

Ybor City never completely died, of course, and in the 1970s it began a very slow climb back to economic viability. At any rate, a part of it did. Seventh Avenue, once the bustling retail, social and entertainment center of the city's Spanish community, gradually came back to life as a popular after-dark destination for the city's hip younger set.

But city and community leaders wanted more. They wanted daytime as well as evening activity, and they wanted the surrounding blocks to be as vital as Seventh. A project like CocoWalk, they reasoned, could serve as catalyst for such a revival, building on the district's two greatest remaining strengths - entertainment and ambiance - to attract a much greater number of people and generate a sense of excitement that would spill over into the surrounding blocks. The developers agreed, and soon the process of creating Centro Ybor was set in motion.

No sudden change The process moved slowly, Miller reports. To begin with, local officials could not simply reward Steiner and Sembler with development rights for the project. They had to issue a request for proposals and allow other developers to compete for those rights. Though Steiner and Sembler ultimately prevailed, the "contest" required many months to complete, after which the team had to negotiate a formal agreement.

Negotiations included selection of a specific site. The parties settled on a site along Seventh surrounding Centro Espanol, an 88-year-old building that served as a social center for the Spanish-speaking community for many decades which the State of Florida acquired in the 1980s. Because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building could not be demolished and could be converted for other uses only after rigorous review.

Fortunately, the state supported the project. A lack of funds had stymied its efforts to restore the building, so Florida officials were only too happy to find a private developer interested in tackling the restoration. The state signed a long-term lease with the developers, who then were able to secure a $9 million low-interest loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to cover the cost of restoration. In exchange, they had to guarantee a portion of permanent jobs would go to low-income individuals.

According to Clark, Centro Espanol played a central role in development of the new project by providing both a physical and an aesthetic focus. It became the pivot around which the rest of the project revolved. "The building gave us a tremendous amount of architectural vocabulary to work with," he explains.

The vocabulary included wrought-iron balconies and railings, covered sidewalks with ornamental posts at the street edge, a pattern of multiple small windows rather than large expanses of plate glass and a variety of traditional building materials.

The building also provided a guidepost for new uses, Clark adds. The building's cantina has been turned into a restaurant called Metropolitan Deluxe; the ballroom has become the Big City Tavern; and the theater is now the Improv comedy club.

Hip to be squared In regard to design, both Miller and Clark underscore the importance of maintaining the integrity of the existing street grid. Thus the project is broken into two pieces on facing blocks, with a public right-of-way between them. The layout, they say, will allow the project to both take advantage of the existing activity along Seventh and feed back into it, to the mutual benefit of both old and new businesses.

At the same time, Clark notes they have bridged the street at the second story and placed the movie theater on one block and most restaurants and other entertainment elements across the street. The theater exits are placed to direct exiting moviegoers across the bridge and past these other tenants.

Box-office draw While Centro Espanol may serve as Centro Ybor's design linchpin, the economic linchpin is without question the Muvico cinema. Miller expects the theater to draw about 1.5 million patrons a year, accounting for half of projected annual visits. "Without the theater, a project like this could not survive. I don't believe any large entertainment project could survive without a movie theater," he declares.

Though most analysts would classify Centro Ybor as an entertainment center, Miller prefers the term "leisure time center" on the grounds that only about a third of the space is devoted to what could genuinely be termed entertainment. Another third is devoted to eating, including both dining and snacking, and the final third is retail.

Of course, a number of tenants fall into at least two of the categories, making it difficult to sort the mix out so simply. Brainfood!, for example, sells books, light meals and wine, while Cafe TuTu Tango serves meals while artists paint and sell their work. And at Camelot Music, a certain percentage of patrons undoubtedly will come just to slip on the earphones and listen to music, rather than to buy CDs. Among the more conventional retailers are Eyetems, which sells fashion sunglasses, Pacific Sunwear and GBX Fashion Shoes.

One of the more unusual tenants of the project is the Tampa Police Department. As a hedge against the problems that can occur with late-night drinking and carousing, the developers offered the department space for a district substation at no rent. Since the city had been seeking a permanent location for a substation in the district for several years, the opportunity worked out to the mutual advantage of both the police and the developers.

With Centro Ybor now complete, Miller acknowledges it did not come together easily. A 50-50 breakdown between credit and non-credit tenants made it more difficult to secure financing, he says. Nonetheless, he believes the project could not succeed without a good representation of local, noncredit tenants.

"People are not going to come if you have the standard array of mall tenants," he points out. "A project like Centro Ybor needs to draw from a wide area, and you can't depend on architecture or setting alone to bring people into town. If all you're going to give them are stores they can find within five or 10 minutes of their homes, why bother?"

The key to making the project work financially, Miller continues, was a $9 million second mortgage from the City of Tampa and a substantially higher than normal infusion of equity from the development partnership. With those components in hand, the developers were able to secure a $32 million loan from Wachovia Bank.

Despite the fact Centro Ybor is only now opening, Miller and Clark report it has already had an impact on the revitalization of Ybor City. A Hilton Garden Inn is in development across the street from Centro Ybor, while Camden Realty Trust is building a five-block residential project nearby. The latter project made national news this spring when it burned down during construction, but Clark says Camden has cleared the debris and started building anew. In addition, says Miller, a high-tech company has purchased an Ybor City parcel for construction of its headquarters.

Based on the response of people who saw the project in its late stages prior to opening, Miller feels confident Centro Ybor will also be a success in its own right. He says the combination of architecture, tenant mix and surrounding area appears to have caught people's fancy.

"People are so excited," he says. "They make comments like `Wow, this is so great, I had no idea this was happening.' It's very rewarding to see how much they like it. We think this is not only going to bring Ybor City back to life, but it's going to make it much better than ever."