courtesy of Strategic Property Partners
Sparkman Wharf lawn, Water Street Tampa

Can Water Street Tampa rekindle belief in the smart city?

Sept. 12, 2023
The multibillion dollar mixed-use development intends to prioritize smart technology in the name of energy efficiency and a seamless, connected lifestyle for residents, workers, and visitors.

Developer Jeff Vinik saw an opportunity to bring much-needed new housing, offices, and public space to one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, Tampa, Fla. Several years after buying the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, he partnered with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment to co-found Strategic Property Partners (SPP), and the real estate group began acquiring property surrounding Amalie Arena, the Lightning’s home rink, in an ambitious bid to revitalize a 56-acre waterfront area cut off from downtown Tampa by the Selmon Expressway. (Vinik recently sold a large stake of SPP to spend more time with family.)

In a break from the commercial-first orthodoxy of many American cities, Vinik envisioned a master-planning blueprint for an emerging cultural and entertainment district that would transform the existing parking lots into a walkable, live-work-play neighborhood enriched with high connectivity and smart technology.

Water Street Tampa is not a conventional project,” says Brad Cooke, SPP senior vice president of development. “We’re building a new destination and a new lifestyle that has never existed in Tampa.” If successful, he continues, Water Street Tampa could lay the groundwork for the planning, development, and assessment of future smart neighborhoods anywhere.

Planners, architects, and smart technology consultants are watching the project closely. Touted as the world’s first pre-certified SmartScore Neighborhood, as well as the first pre-certified WELL Community, Water Street Tampa will be equipped with hard-wired, fiber-to-pole infrastructure to support resilient and hyper-efficient buildings, dynamic street and traffic lights, air quality sensors, acoustic security controls, a districtwide heating and cooling system, and electric charging stations.

But first, Water Street Tampa will need to demonstrate the judicious and prudent use of technology, something Will Brouwer says hasn’t always been the case in smart neighborhoods. “Some cities want to just deploy technology everywhere,” says the senior product manager for New York–based certification agency WiredScore, the governing entity of SmartScore. “You see the visuals of drones and flashy tech, but they have no real strategy as to the defined outcomes they are looking to deliver.”

Water Street Tampa appears to be charting a different course by integrating smart technology with the intentions of reducing energy consumption and costs and providing a seamless lifestyle experience, Brouwer adds: “[T]hey're defining everything from an outcomes-first perspective.”

The first phase of the two-phase project, completed in October, includes 600,000 square feet of new office space, including the COOKFOX Architects–designed Thousand & One and the loft-style floorplates of Sparkman Wharf, Tampa’s first new downtown office in 30 years. It also built 1,335 new residences, including three multifamily rental buildings and the city’s first five-star hotel, the 172-room Tampa Edition, along with two other hotels. SPP has signed leases with 50 new retailers, donated land for the University of South Florida to relocate its Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute to the neighborhood, and preserved 13 acres of public space for bike lanes, plazas, and parks. Overall, the project is about half finished; the second phase, which will extend north, is underway.

A tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly street plan and 45-foot-long waterfront promenade are key to the ultimate goal of Water Street Tampa: to attract residents, retailers, digital start-ups, and tourists to a lively, 18-hour-a-day destination, where they can live, shop, eat, work or study, with access to districtwide, low latency Wi-Fi and a robust fiber network ripe for the testing and deployment of new technologies, Cooke says.

Realizing that vision has less to do with software and IoT products, and more with the subterranean infrastructure that supports them, says Mike Smith, CEO of the Cleveland-based building technology advisory and project consultant Whitespace.

The plan’s densely clustered, approximately 300-foot street blocks, conceived in concert with the piping and conduit beneath them, limit upfront digital and physical infrastructure costs by allowing for phased, consolidated development—while also encouraging walkability. “Here, you had almost a clean slate,” says David Manfredi, founding principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects, the Boston-based firm that developed Water Street Tampa’s master plan. “It was a great advantage to be able to say, ‘We want to do all of this smart technology. It belongs as part of the infrastructure the way that, historically, we think about stormwater and sewers. And we're going to think about technology built into the city, not built on top of it.’”

More specifically, an underground corridor of 16, 4-inch thick fiber conduits powers 180 connected streetlights equipped with air quality monitors and Ruckus wireless access points (napkin-sized, roughly 4” thick ports also found in residential units and public spaces and numbering in the thousands) that extend the reach of a Universal Access Network by local provider GigaMonster. Once authenticated to the network, users can access free 5G Wi-Fi in public spaces. Each user, Smith says, essentially has “their own individual network—meaning their connection is private and secure—and they can roam throughout the neighborhood while remaining fully connected to the same network.”

With AI boosting the speed of software integrations, energy costs rising, and the Biden administration investing heavily in renewable energy, emerging IoT, and digital infrastructure through legislation such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), the timing might be right for projects like Water Street Tampa to gain broader public approval.

But public backlash against previous smart neighborhood development efforts, such as Quayside in Toronto, show how difficult it can be for smart, tech-enabled, and monitored communities to win support. After three years of planning, Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs walked away from Quayside in 2020 amid stiff objection from privacy advocates. Earlier this year, Waterfront Toronto announced a plan to redevelop the site with a focus on resilience, affordable housing, and social equity—and less on smart technology.

Resistance to smart technology is tied up in growing public suspicion of what some view as the single-minded profit motives of Big Tech companies, Brouwer says. Documented by books like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, 2019), skeptics fear the rise of smart technology in the built environment opens yet another front in which to wrest money and privacy protections from consumers through surveillance, data collection, and targeted advertisements.

Yet, Brouwer says, “We don’t believe that’s the case. We think, if done correctly, we can deploy technology in the real world that creates more sustainable, healthy, resilient places in a way that does protect someone's personal data.”

In fact, Water Street Tampa’s data ontology, privacy, and aggregation and sharing policy is one reason WiredScore chose it as a test bed for the SmartScore Neighborhood standard. For instance, the developer is “not just saying we collect [air quality data], therefore, rest assured you're living with healthy air quality,” Brouwer says. “They’re saying, ‘Hold us to account: We’re going to show you our air quality, and we're going to make sure it delivers.’”

Globally, roughly 400 buildings and 100 million square feet of office space have been SmartScore certified by WiredScore, which uses a scorecard to track the user functionality and technological foundations of a project. Water Street Tampa demonstrates how the purported benefits—improved resiliency, energy efficiency, digital connectivity, convenience, and user well-being—of such certified buildings can scale to the neighborhood level.

Because broader adoption of SmartScore Neighborhood standard, to an extent, hinges on the success of Water Street Tampa, WiredScore might be particularly keen on ensuring the project avoids the cryptic policy agreements and contractual language around data collection and use that have plagued several previous smart city attempts.

Whitespace’s guidance from the project’s earliest days might also help Water Street Tampa elude the fate of past ventures. Back in 2016, the U.S. had only a handful of active smart neighborhood projects, and few, if any, at the proposed scale of Water Street Tampa, says Whitespace’s Smith. As a result, the team looked for inspiration overseas. 

They found Wembley Park, a neighborhood in northwest London anchored by OVO Arena Wembley that deploys Ruckus access point devices to deliver continuous high-speed Wi-Fi to an entire district. Tailoring such a system to Water Street Tampa’s site required years of planning and significant funding; the project, as a whole, has tallied a reported $3.5 billion in private investment from SPP and a significant portion of this expense has gone into the infrastructure. But the effort appears to be paying off, at least when it comes to digital connectivity.

What’s ingenious about the Water Street Tampa design, Brouwer says, is the multiple functions served by the light poles. Providing housing for the Ruckus devices, which are embedded with PM 2.5 air quality monitors, Wi-Fi ports, lighting fixtures specified by Lumca, and CCTV cameras, the poles, spaced every 30 feet, don’t just provide light; they serve as a digital nerve center and communication corridor for the entire district.

Extending fiber connections into the roadways to power the poles required broad ownership of the streetscape through capitalized acquisitions, which the developers took seriously. “[T]hey really wanted to control the public spaces—sidewalks, parks, things like that,” Smith says. “So they made them private property.”

Traditionally, communications companies—AT&T, Verizon, Frontier—would control the conduits in the public streets, Smith explains. “Typically you’d run three or four cables from inside the building to a manhole, but you can’t connect between buildings because it’s cost-prohibitive.” At Water Street Tampa, he continues, “you get reliable connectivity [and] low latency applications.” As a result, users will get faster data flow and information access, which will aid in making better decisions.”

Currently, individual property management teams, including Cushman & Wakefield and Bozzuto Group, and various consulting and engineering teams manage security and operational data. By year’s end, the development team aims to consolidate the data within a single software platform that will function as a command center. Drawing information from disparate systems and presenting it in what Cooke calls a “single pane of glass” will help building managers and front-desk staff monitor energy performance and security or health threats.

“Right now, each individual building is pretty smart,” Smith said. “They all have their own standalone systems. When you get the efficiencies of connecting everything, and put those systems in place, now you're really driving efficiencies across the district; you’re driving efficiencies for asset management and operations.”

In the meantime, an interactive, 17-foot digital twin model of downtown Tampa housed in SPP’s marketing center at Thousand & One aims to shine a light on the city’s evolving real estate market. A projection mapping system flickers with data visualizations, such as market rates, vacancies, transportation data, and even the path of sunlight moving through Water Street Tampa’s buildings.

None of this, of course, comes cheap or without risks. Even enthusiastic project advocates will say that smart neighborhoods are expensive and require significant upfront investment in physical and digital infrastructure, not to mention operational technology consultancies, master planning teams, and systems integrators, before developers can see any meaningful return on investment. Despite an economic impact report from financial consultant PFM (and shared with Axios) that estimates Water Street Tampa’s first phase will produce $520 million annually, Manfredi says recouping the investment costs will likely take at least a decade.

“You’ve got to build streets, utilities, water, power, and data before you see any revenue come back,” Manfredi says. But he is unfazed. Like the team, he knows that’s the price of building a smart city.

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About the Author

Jeff Link

Jeff Link is an award-winning writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in Fast Company and Dwell, among other publications. Follow him on X @JeffJefflink.

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