TAMPA, Fla. — It’s been one year since communities across the country and the Tampa Bay area took a stand against police brutality and misconduct following the death of George Floyd.
One Tampa community caught in the middle of the outrage was the University Mall area. And now, we’re learning about sweeping changes in store to transform the neighborhood for the future.
May 31, 2020, marked a flashpoint for Tampa’s social justice demonstrations.
There was widespread looting, property destruction, and some stores set on fire.
“I had someone on a bicycle ride by and said, ‘hey, you need to shelter in place because they’re headed this way,’” said Pamela Thompson, owner of My Shade & Texture.
Thompson hunkered down and spent the night inside her store. She also posted a sign on the window stating “Black-owned business,” hoping protestors would spare her beauty boutique.
“Being an owner, you want to protect your space as if I was home,” recalls Thompson. “As if I was at my home, I would be doing the same thing, staying here to protect my space.”
The tone of the summer movement shifted that Saturday night, and down the street, the University Mall area burned, swarmed with more people than it had likely seen in years.
“The University Mall back in the 90s was the place to go,” said Ainsley Daux. “Hang out, see your friends from school, see your friends from other schools.”
The once-bustling center for shopping and socializing is now flanked by empty storefronts, creating the target for the tinderbox ignited in Tampa that night.
“It’s pretty much like a vacant lot,” said Thompson. “And just to see how it has, you know, kind of dwindled away.”
ABC Action News examined critical factors within the social justice movement, like economic opportunity, or lack thereof, in the places that experienced civil unrest.
“We have to obviously dismantle racist, racist systems that keep poor Blacks and browns in these under-served communities of color,” said Dr. Carleen Vincent-Robinson.
Dr. Vincent-Robinson with Florida International University is an expert in diversity, equity and inclusion. She says re-developing the University Mall area could mean opportunity for generations to come if it’s done the right way.
“You’re going to restore pride within a community, and you’re giving people, as long as you’re not pushing people out through gentrification and you make it so that they can’t afford to live there anymore, you give them or help them develop a feeling of being vested in that area.”
ABC Action News has learned, a billion-dollar mall makeover is now underway.
“This is a neighborhood that has a lot of value,” said Chris Bowen. “It has a lot of opportunity for the future.”
RD Management’s development, “Rithm at Uptown,” will feature USF student housing, restaurants, shops — more than 7 million square feet of mixed-use space.
The goal is to plant a full-service city smack on Fowler Avenue, hoping to become a hub for innovation where tech and science companies take root.
“We’re making entrepreneurs here,” said Bowen. “I mean that in terms of mindset. So whether you work for someone else or you work for yourself, that entrepreneurial mindset is really what we want to teach here and what we want to create.”
Research and development for the 100-acre renovation took five years. Much of that time was spent figuring out how to build new, without forcing others out.
“Economic development that is heavily tied and carved into the neighborhoods and has got those pathways engrained and is creating that activity into this property,” said Bowen.
We’ve learned, the student housing portion of the project will be complete by May 2022.
The entire development will take up to five years to complete.
ABC Action News has confirmed, the few remaining tenants at the University Mall have been invited to stay on board and continue operating within the new development.
University area residents and business owners look forward to growth and support.
“Being able to still thrive, giving back to the community,” said Thompson.
A long-neglected area, rising from the ashes.