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The story of here: Communities embrace narrative, culture as key planning criteria

Property development is getting a surge of creativity in some pockets of the region. Will this trend stick around?

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 6:00 a.m. November 30, 2018
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple. Nancy Walker, president of Tampa-based Walker Brands, has provided creative placemaking and place branding services for a wide variety of property developers.
Mark Wemple. Nancy Walker, president of Tampa-based Walker Brands, has provided creative placemaking and place branding services for a wide variety of property developers.
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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There’s an undeniable buzz, a sense that something special is happening, in multiple Tampa Bay area communities.

Consider downtown St. Petersburg and the distinctive, mural-filled districts that have popped up around it. Or across the bay in downtown Tampa, where features such as the Riverwalk and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park have breathed new life into a city center that used to roll up its sidewalks at 5 p.m., as the old saying goes.

The story behind the boom times that have come to these downtowns is one of real estate. But it didn’t happen overnight, or by accident, and it has a twist developers across the region would be wise to keep in mind as they look to capitalize on the area’s influx of new businesses and residents.

What's the secret? Creative placemaking. 

Creative placemaking is a development strategy based on the inclusion of art and cultural assets as a fundamental part of the process, “not toward the end, not as an afterthought, but an integral part of real estate development,” says Juanita Hardy, a senior visiting fellow at the Urban Land Institute, which lists Tampa-St. Petersburg among its Top 10 real estate markets to watch.

'In order to get the greatest amount of gross leasable space, we tend to minimize opportunities for great placemaking.' Nancy Walker, Walker Brands.

Hardy recently spoke in St. Pete as part of a ULI panel discussion about the city’s transformation into a cultural capital of Florida and the Southeast. She was joined by John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance; Barbara Wilks, founder and principal of W Architecture in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Keith Greminger, senior planning and urban design manager at Kimley-Horn, a nationwide planning and design consultancy. Horn moderated the discussion.

Groups such as ULI and its philanthropic supporter, the Troy, Mich.-based Kresge Foundation, argue creative placemaking forms the bedrock of healthy, equitable, thriving communities. Hardy, citing research by Americans for the Arts, says 71% of Americans surveyed believe arts and culture improve the image and identity of their communities, and that nearly half — 49% — of all people with college degrees consider arts and culture when deciding where they want to work.

That's why Hardy says creative placemaking “is both a component of a healthy place and a strategy for achieving a healthy place."

But there’s also a strong business case for it, says Hardy, citing the Reston Town Center in Reston, Va., as a prime example. The urban mixed-use development brims with art galleries, a theater, festivals and plenty of public art, as well as some 4 million square feet of office space.

In a region where the average office building vacancy rate hovers between 16% and 18%, the Reston Town Center’s is 0.5%, Hardy says. Its office rental rates are the highest in Virginia’s Fairfax County, while some of its spaces rent for 50% more than similar offerings mere blocks away.

“The bottom line,” says Hardy, “is there is a dividend to be realized from creative placemaking. People stay longer, they come back more often and they spend money in places that attract their affection.”


Collins has seen that dividend realized many times over in St. Pete, which has experienced an explosion of tech and digital startups calling the city home due, in part, to its emphasis on reinventing itself as an artistic and cultural oasis. “We are Florida’s cultural capital,” he says. “We’re not Miami; we’re not New York; we know that. But we have things here that nowhere else in Florida has.”

1810 Kennedy. Courtesy photo.
1810 Kennedy. Courtesy photo.

St. Pete, for one, has six theater companies and 11 museums, with one more — the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement — scheduled to open in May. Beach Drive, along the scenic waterfront, buzzes with art galleries and boutique retail shops, while Central Avenue’s 600 block, aka the Central Arts District, is an eclectic strip that’s home to performance venues and even a recording studio.

Farther west, the EDGE District, Grand Central Arts District and Warehouse Arts District — the latter with an emphasis on earthy, industrial pursuits like glass blowing and clay sculpting — complete the picture of St. Pete as a city-sized art gallery.

Thus, it’s no wonder the area’s population of independent artists, writers and performers has boomed. The number of such people in the region, which includes St. Pete, Tampa and Clearwater, grew by 54% between 2002 and 2014, according to Collins’ research. Also significant: companies such as  Eagle Datagistics, iQor and Priatek have cited the Tampa Bay metro area’s vibrant arts scene as a key factor in their decisions to locate here.


But unlike "Field of Dreams" and its tagline, “If you build it, they will come,” creative placemaking in the real world is more complex. Few people know that better than Nancy Walker, president of Walker Brands in Tampa, who, in her words, has been connecting people with places since 1992 and has seen a surge of demand for the suite of “place branding” services in which she specializes.

“Placemaking is as much about creating a great place as it is delivering an experience, but also telling the story, which ties it back to the culture of an area, the history of an area, which is critical to any place identity,” says Walker, mentioning Tampa’s Ybor City and its distinct signage, architecture and mix of establishments in restored heritage buildings. “The commerce, the retail is different. Even the lamp posts are different. And that invites people to understand story. When you understand story, you have a greater appreciation of a place.”

Walker doesn’t just talk the talk of creative placemaking — she lives it. In 2008, Walker Brands opened its headquarters, built by the Beck Group, at 1810 W. Kennedy Blvd., and it made headlines as Tampa’s first privately funded, LEED Gold certified building. The parking lot is covered by an enormous solar-power array. The airy interior, meanwhile, sacrifices space that could have been used for offices in favor of an elaborate piece of public art that floats above an open, café-style reception area — dubbed Brand Central — complete with kitchen and library. Almost every surface is employed as a unique touch point, an opportunity for engagement with clients and visitors.

One of those visitors, Tampa property investor Mark Levey, was so impressed with the space he bought the building from Walker in 2012 for $2.35 million. He added 5,000 square feet to it, including a spacious gym, high-tech conference rooms and even a hair salon, and enticed other companies to set up shop there. Now dubbed “1810 Kennedy,” it’s a business collective, housing companies that run the gamut from interior design and financial management to software development and private investment. An organic wine wholesaler and health and nutrition coach also have offices there.

“I was looking for a place to hang my hat,” says Levey, who describes the building as “a work of art” and “something out of Silicon Valley.”

Although the building was already LEED Gold certified when he bought it, Levey added additional “green” features, including charging stations for electric vehicles and a garden for growing fresh fruits and vegetables. He says the additions have ensured vacancies are minimal: “We stay mostly filled up, and I get the impression our current tenants enjoy the building.”

Prior to selling the property to Levey, Walker would invite community groups to use the building’s conference and meeting rooms, free of charge. She also welcomed business travelers to set up shop in Brand Central.

She says she took inspiration from Starbucks, whose meteoric rise was powered, in part, by its emphasis on becoming a “third space” — not quite work, not quite home — that offered an atmosphere that transcended traditional office spaces and retail establishments. "The more memory points you can create, the more senses you can engage, the greater the experience and value you offer” to the customer or client, Walker says. 

Walker also took inspiration from the ultimate creative placemaker: Walt Disney Co., where she did some work earlier in her career. “Disney shaped a lot of our thinking because Disney is remarkable at taking a space, creating a story and then bringing that story to life, and then you get the revenue stream,” she says. “Most people will take a space, create a place and then try to figure out the story.”

Walker says commercial property developers can easily adopt the mindset of a creative placemaker like Disney or Starbucks — even if their building is already close to being finished. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do simple things, she says, such as putting up art in spaces that make a first impression, like parking lots, garages and elevators.

For projects in the planning stage, “It’s all about the math, right?” Walker says. “In order to get the greatest amount of gross leasable space, we tend to minimize opportunities for great placemaking.”

But when you consider a building’s entire “audience,” Walker says, you move from a utilitarian, transactional mindset to one that delights and creates memories — and that leads to repeat business, employee loyalty and, best of all, a place of value within the community.

“We have employees, we have clients, we have vendors, and they all need to enriched by this space," Walker says. "But one audience that a lot of people don’t consider is their community."


Like ULI's Hardy, Mark House, managing director at Dallas-based Beck Group, the company that built 1810 Kennedy, says it would behoove developers to consider creative placemaking at the outset of a project — not as an afterthought.

Mark House. Courtesy photo.
Mark House. Courtesy photo.

“Local governments are specifically looking for more than just real estate investments,” he says. “They want companies to be long-term contributors to the community. They don’t want a lot of in and out and turnover.”

The Beck Group has designed or built a slew of high-profile buildings in recent years that have contributed to the ongoing renaissance in St. Petersburg and Tampa, including the Dali Museum and James Museum. The company was also one of the early champions of Tampa Heights, the riverfront development highlighted by Armature Works and Richard Gonzmart’s popular restaurant, Ulele. It even built a Tampa office for itself there.

Tampa Heights has been a magnet for additional public and private development and proven to be an unbridled hit with the public, which House says points to the power of collaboration and engagement that puts civic, artistic and cultural interests at the forefront. 

“Ten years ago, it was a blighted area,” House says. “We wanted to give back to the community, but we also wanted to be in what could be a cool place, maybe be the seed that started an idea.”

(This story has been updated to correct a quote by Juanita Hardy in the 11th paragraph of the first section.)



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