Transforming Tampa Bay 

A new column about the changing urban landscape — and how you can play a part.

You have power. You choose to patronize this restaurant rather than that one. You select the car you drive, the music on your iPod, the breakfast cereal you eat and the coffee you mainline.

In all these choices you are guided by friends’ advice, and by voices and images online, in print and on TV screens directing your way. There’s an avalanche of information, readily available, to help shape your decisions.

However, there’s a major disconnect, a lack of information when it comes to understanding and directing our surroundings. We live in a dynamic area with buildings going up and coming down. Natural spaces are protected or paved over. Trees are chopped down and replaced, or not.

Many of the choices in our community are ours to make. Others are made by politicians and private investors, but we would still have the ability to influence those decisions if we were privy to the information and knew where and when to weigh in. But few do know. Often there’s little opportunity to talk about such prospective changes or have an impact prior to the deed being done.

You should have power in this arena, too.

My intention with this column, “Transforming Tampa Bay,” is to raise the level of conversation about our surroundings and hopefully improve them.

First, I want to make you aware of what is being proposed — invite you to be in on the story of what’s being built and what’s coming next, then share the ways to make your voice heard. Think about this column as a place to talk about what we aspire to in the future.

As an example of one such aspirational project, consider the Oxford Exchange, the extraordinary new urban infill project across from the University of Tampa. Blake Casper, the project’s visionary young developer, may be better known as the third-generation head of the state’s largest McDonald’s franchise company. But the years he spent as an undergrad at the London School of Economics clearly left an impression, reinforcing an innate respect for classic design and literary culture that helped him see the potential in a disheveled two-story brick building on Tampa’s Kennedy Boulevard.

Casper’s architect checked out the property, built in the 1890s as a stable for the Plant Hotel, and reported that it was larger than it appeared from the street. The initially modest project grew to a 24,000-square-foot complex incorporating a restaurant, tea shop, coffee bar and boutique/curiosity shop to complement what Casper had first envisioned as just a bookstore and offices.

“We want people to be comfortable here, to create a unique space that people will enjoy,” muses Casper, a quietly handsome world traveler. He worked closely with the architecture firm, Smith Dalia from Atlanta, to create the ambience of a London club reset in the new world. While never directly quoting a particular British venue, Casper collaborated with interior designer MaryBeth Courier and lead architect Brian Whitfield to translate the materials and sensibility of age and grace to the Oxford Exchange.

The striking, reclaimed pine and white oak floors, which are oiled, not polyurethaned, were selected in Kentucky by the design team and Casper. This choice — along with the coffered arched ceiling, retractable glass-roofed conservatory, carefully selected interior landscaping, and brass-railed bookstore — reveals a rare commitment to detail.

While Casper is reluctant to say just how much all these exquisite details cost, he’s banking on the hope that “the quality of the experience will induce return visitors, whose purchases and indulgences will allow the Oxford Exchange to continue.” Given the charm and escapism which the Oxford Exchange provides, he seems to have made a good bet. And his emphasis on quality is a gift to the community.

Del Acosta — my first boss at the Planning Commission and a passionate advocate for preserving the beauty and heritage of Tampa — sums up the appeal of Oxford Exchange best:

“This place changes the expectations of our town.”

It’s true — we get the city we expect. While there is no one perfect vision for how our area should evolve, my early career as a city planner, followed by 20 years as a Tampa City Council member, has convinced me that most people want to build decent projects; they just don’t know what is missing.

Creative Loafing is inaugurating this public chat for all of us. I’ll throw out a proposed or existing topic for consideration and you can weigh in with your thoughts, observations and suggestions at TransformingTampaBay@cln.com, or leave a comment on this story at cltampa.com. The ensuing conversation will shed light on perhaps untapped possibilities and help us all become players in shaping our town.

Stay tuned!

Linda Saul-Sena has been awarded the Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the Florida AIA and been recognized with the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Elected Official Award. She currently serves on the board of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and the Livable Roadways Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. A Tampa native, she lives with Mark, her husband, in the home her grandparents built in 1938 and frequently visits their two daughters in NYC.

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