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Roundup 2-7-2014

February 7, 2014

Master Planning – Something in the West River

Last week, the City unveiled the InVision Tampa master plan for “West River” (the eastern edge of West Tampa near the river – see map on pg 38 of the pdf – also below). Like most of InVision Tampa, it had some merit, even if those ideas were pretty obvious.  Also, like most of InVision Tampa, it had some issues – in this case one in particular.

First, the unveiling:

Hang around Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and it won’t take long for him to say he wants to make the Hillsborough River the center of downtown Tampa and not its western edge.

On Wednesday, Buckhorn and the Tampa Housing Authority rolled out the draft of a 10-year plan to help make that happen.

“This is big,” Buckhorn said of the transformation envisioned for 120 acres west of the river and north of Interstate 275. “This is bodacious. This is exciting. This will be a game-changer.”

Whatever.  As the Tribune pointed out in an editorial, rebuilding public housing has been done before “at College Hill, Ponce DeLeon and Central Park Village” (the last one becoming the Encore project.)

So what is the outline?

The proposed “West River” plan would start with demolishing the World War II-era public housing at North Boulevard Homes. The imposing concrete-block apartments would be replaced by a more traditional neighborhood with walkable streets.

A total of 820 apartments would be bulldozed, making way for more than 1,600 new townhomes and apartments. The new housing would include both subsidized housing and units that sell or rent for market rates. With more working- and middle-class residents, businesses on Main Street should see more customers, officials say.

Most of that is true and fine, though it is also not exactly telling the whole story, but we will get to that.  What else is in the plan?

The plan also includes recommendations to open access to the river and build mid-rise apartments on 12 acres south of Columbus Drive where the city now parks utility trucks.

* * *

The study area encompasses two public housing complexes, four schools (Dunbar and Just elementaries, Stewart Middle and Blake High) and the city’s truck maintenance yard, which is a block from the river, between Rome and Oregon avenues.

Various government entities own 80 percent of the land in the West River study area. Under the plan, several of those governments would swap land to make various projects happen. School baseball diamonds, for example, would be moved to land now covered by part of North Boulevard Homes.

* * *

The plan also envisions:

• Creating commercial anchors at key intersections such as Rome Avenue and Main Street.

• Replacing Hillsborough County’s West Tampa Neighborhood Service Center on N Rome Avenue with a new community center a few blocks to the southeast.

• Relocating baseball diamonds and a quarter-mile track that now overlook the river behind Just Elementary and Stewart Middle schools. That way, Willow Avenue could be extended all the way north to the river. The schools would stay where they are. The sports fields and track would end up south of Spruce Street where part of the North Boulevard Homes now sits. No ballfields would be eliminated.

• Creating a commercial “Waterfront Square” where Willow meets the river, near Rick’s on the River.

This is the main planning map from the master plan (pg 38 of the pdf):

Page 38 of the InVision Tampa West River plan – click on picture for pdf

That is all fine as far as it goes – which is not far enough. And how will this be paid for?

“The next step,” said Tampa Housing Authority President Jerome Ryans, “is the money.”

The proposal, nearly three years in the making, will lay the foundation for the housing authority to seek a $30 million “Choice Neighborhoods” grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The agency will apply for the grant this year. If HUD approves, the money would be available in the 2015 federal budget.

The housing authority has used the same HUD grant to redevelop Central Park Village, which is now being remade as the Encore! project northeast of downtown. It took two tries to win that grant.

The HUD money would pay for relocating existing North Boulevard Homes residents, demolishing the Depression-era housing and building new mixed-income housing.

***

When relocation begins, North Boulevard residents will move to other public housing or get vouchers for private housing. They would have the option to move back to the redeveloped neighborhood as some people have done at Encore!, Ryans said.

But none of that can start until the money arrives, Ryans said.

When redevelopment does start, it will be a decade in the making, Ryans said.

Ok, there is no money.  That’s ok.  You have to start somewhere, and without money there is time to fine tune the plans.

So, like we said, there are some things to recommend themselves in the plan – most pretty obvious – like building to the street, having street retail, opening up the river, etc.

But there is a major flaw – density, or rather lack of density. (Even a quite gushing Times editorial noted that the housing is not dense enough. )  There was this comment of the representative from AECom (along with ULI, our outsourced planning department):

As presented today, the plan for reinventing the West River area calls for:

♦ Doubling the number of housing units now on the site, from 820 to 1,600, all of it dense, multifamily buildings that would include a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing.

The idea that the number of units will be doubled is technically true, but it is missing some caveats. The reality is that the plan is not that dense at all, which can be seen from the plan itself.  To understand, one should look at the proposed phasing map of the master plan (pg 58 of the pdf)

Page 58 of the InVision Tampa West River plan – click on picture for pdf

First, North Boulevard Homes (click on link for Google map view), which will be demolished, has 682 units.  With some more public housing, the total comes to, the articles tell us, 820 public housing units demolished.  The interesting thing is that all those units are in the southern end of the development, which the phase map includes in phases 1-4 (though about half of phase 4 is outside the housing area) of new construction.  The rest of the land in the master plan is presently used by the City for parks, utilities, and parking for its fleet.  In other words, there is no housing there.

Of the area that is presently public housing, pg 58 of the plan tells us that about 850 units will be built (assuming half of phase 4 is outside the area) and some of the land will be new sports fields.  Of course, the new buildings will be nicer than what is there now – they will have front doors to the street, and there will be some retail.  However, going from 820 to 850 units does not increase density much at all.  Moreover, looking at the map, much of the lots used for housing are going to be taken up with surface parking lots. (see pg 44 of the pdf; for more on the massing of most blocks see pg 48-50 of the pdf)  The reality is that a lot of the plan is basically building suburban apartment complexes inside out (putting the big parking lots in the middle of the lots rather than the outside) which is not creating a real urban environment with density. (The increase in unit number comes from building in what are presently non-housing lots.)  The fact is that there may be an increase in units, but the housing is not really becoming denser.

Then there is this:

The site offers million-dollar views of downtown’s towers and potential access to the river, which Buckhorn has pledged to make a central feature in the future of downtown’s future growth.

Of course, almost no one living in the district will have those views (unless they walk to the river) because on most blocks the tallest building is going to be 3 stories (the tallest building in the plan is 6 stories; most will be 2 stories) which will not get over the tree line and may or may not get over the reconstructed I-275 to the south.  Short buildings and lots of surface parking is hardly the making of the west end of downtown.

And there is another issue. The median of I-275 is supposed to be the heart of any transit between downtown and Westshore/TIA.  How does it make sense to not build with density near the likely transit line?  How is surface parking the best use of the land a few blocks from a main transit line (whether bus or rail)?

Moreover, the phased plan locks in this lack of real, urban density first (and closest to transit) then sees what comes later.  Why not first build with some density (maybe just like Encore, which is not that dense but is certainly better) and transit oriented development and preserve the other land to build densely later if there is demand. (Why foreclose the option of having real density in the whole area?)

If the plan is to make the river the center of downtown, then the master plan is inadequate because it is just not that urban.

Nevertheless, we agree with this:

“I will not be mayor when this is finished,” Buckhorn said. “But we’ve got to start. There is no better time to undertake something of this magnitude, of this size, than now.”

There is no better time to start than now.  Remaking this area is a once in a generation opportunity.  It is just too bad that, while it has some good ideas, the plan fails to think big.  While it is “ok,” excellent would not be any harder.  Fortunately, there is still time to change it.

Economic Development – We’re Talking the Talk, but Are We Walking the Walk? Cont.

Last week, we featured a Tampa Bay Business Journal item about biotech in the Tampa Bay area.   In that discussion, we noted that one insider said there was a “stealth cloak” over biotech in the Tampa Bay area.  The Business Journal had a follow up item that looked at the stealth cloak comment.

Part of the issue is there is no “center” to the local industry, said John Bonfiglio, president and CEO of Tampa-based Oragenics Inc. (NYSE MKT: OGEN). Bonfiglio said he wants to see a cluster of buildings where like-minded startup companies are located. That prompted Valerie McDevitt, associate vice president for technology transfer and business incubation at University of South Florida, to invite him to visit USF’s research facilities. “The fact that I don’t know about it and I’m a CEO of a biotech company and I’ve been here three years means it’s probably not as well known as it should be,” Bonfiglio said.

Right.  As we noted in a discussion of an economic development report in 2011:

The Executive Summary does not address infrastructure, planning or creating an attractive urban environment to both draw and retain talent.  For instance, how will Tampa Bay compete with Orlando’s “Medical City” – where all the biomed and healthcare industries can be concentrated in one location following a pattern set in many places (Houston comes to mind). Where is that going to be?  If it is near the USF Medical School (a logical choice), is Pinellas going buy in – hopefully, but, sadly, there is little evidence for it.  There is also mention of destination medical care, but we need a concerted effort to make Tampa Bay more accessible to people willing to travel than competitors for that market – so back to the airport issues.

In other words, this has been an issue for years.  Despite all the technological advances, physical clustering helps intellectual clustering.  There are other issues:

It’s all about networking, said Dr. Alan List, president and CEO, Moffitt Cancer Center. “What we don’t have is a close network yet.”

Proximity helps networking, though it can be done without it.  Of course, if you are networking between Hillsborough and Pinellas, you have to have a good way to get around. (On many days, you can arguably get from USF’s main campus to Disney in the same time than you can get from USF to downtown St. Pete.)

Another needed ingredient to stir the local biotech stew is stronger high school and college STEM education, said Doug O’Dowd, chief financial officer at Tampa-based contract research firm Xcelience.

All agreed funding is key. . .

Education is important (including being able to read), as is retaining those you educate and attracting more, which goes back to lifestyle, transportation, the built environment, and amenities. (And whether we can attract those people if we keep trying to solve all problems on the cheap when other areas are fully investing.)  Funding is always an issue – which gets us back to regional cooperation and competing with other areas of the state and country.

The bottom line is that this discussion just points out the actual effects of all the issues we have been discussing for years – planning, built environment, transportation, and proper economic development efforts. They are all related, and all need to be properly addressed.

Transportation – When To Do A Hillsborough Referendum

Last week, there was an interesting article regarding the timing of a possible Hillsborough transportation referendum.

Though details are still sketchy, proponents say the referendum could be held in March (2015) to coincide with the Tampa mayoral election. They don’t want to hold the referendum this November because a similar transportation tax is on the ballot in Pinellas County that month and officials here want to see how that vote goes.

* * *

“We’re going to have some finality to all these conversations this year,” said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who supported the 2010 referendum. “What would likely then occur is we will be talking about funding options and then you will likely see (a referendum) in 2015.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he supports holding the referendum in March. By that time the county and city transportation planners will have identified the projects, including a potential rail route, giving the policy group time to vote on the list as well as a funding source, he said.

First, it has been obvious all along that Hillsborough elected officials are going to wait for Pinellas to vote. That being said, it makes sense not to interfere with the Pinellas referendum, particularly since opponents of transit spend a lot of time working to create confusion in the issues.  No need to add to that.

As for 2015 – on the one hand, Hillsborough has already waited too long, so we would like to see something happen quickly.  On the other hand, Hillsborough needs to have all a solid plan and an ability to explain it to people before anything goes to a vote.  What does the County say?

The county commission could act this year to set a referendum for March 2015, said County Attorney Chip Fletcher. The state statute dealing with such local tax elections leaves the timing up to county commissioners, Fletcher said. The referendum would require an ordinance approved by a simple majority of the seven-member commission.

That majority might be hard to come by, however. Five commissioners reached by The Tampa Tribune on Wednesday said March might be too soon to ask voters to raise their own taxes. Republicans Al Higginbotham and Victor Crist, who say they have heard rumblings about a referendum next year, cite the continuing weakness in the economy as a reason to wait.

* * *

Other commissioners said a March referendum would not give the policy group time to digest the large package of transportation projects still being developed and then sell the improvements – and a tax increase – to county residents.

“We just want to make sure we have all the information back: the citizen feedback, the funding sources, the economic development areas,” Republican Sandy Murman said. “I just think there’s a whole lot that needs to be coordinated and put together before we even talk about a referendum.”

We are not so concerned about the economy issue.  (It is not like the Commissioners citing the economy have been out front on transportation anyway.)  In terms of getting feedback, that is needed, which is why this process should have taken place earlier.

It also is a bit odd to have a County referendum at the time of an exclusively City election.  What is likely to happen is that those people who really care – on both sides of the issue – will turn out.  Most other people in the County will stay home.  We have no idea how that would work out.

Frankly, we have decidedly mixed feelings on a 2015 date.  Yes, we want to get on with it, but we want to get on with a proper plan, not something cobbled together.  As it stands, what has been said in public does not lead us to think a full plan can be created in time for a campaign, but maybe it can.  To do that, the elected officials are going to have to pick up the pace and get behind doing something.  It is just another problem caused by the lackadaisical approach taken over the years to Hillsborough transportation issues.

Transportation – Another Voice

Last week, Connect Tampa Bay, the initiative started by young professionals, but inclusive on anyone who wants to contribute, issued a proposal regarding Hillsborough.  Much like we advocate, it takes the approach of creating an integrated system that includes various technologies (and some non-technological ideas like walking).  It is really more of a strategic outline, but it is definitely worth a look (you can see the pdf here)

It is, in our opinion, worthy of support.  Overcoming the obstacles that have held us back (and still hold us back) will take collective action, and they have taken a good first step.

Transportation – The High Speed Ferry Moves Forward Slowly

The County has decided to study the south County-MacDill ferry proposal.

A multimillion-dollar proposal to launch a high-speed ferry service crossing Tampa Bay inched forward Wednesday as Hillsborough County commissioners approved spending up to $125,000 to study its feasibility.

The ferry would primarily shuttle MacDill Air Force Base employees who live in southern Hillsborough to the base from a terminal near Apollo Beach. Routes linking downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg on nights and weekends could be added.

Most of the money commissioners approved spending Wednesday — $100,000 of the $125,000 — will go to HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Group LLC, the private groups behind the proposal represented by lawyer and former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik. Some of that money will cover research Turanchik’s clients already did for their unsolicited bid. The remaining $25,000 will cover any costs the county incurs as it researches the ferry.

We have no problem with getting a proper study of the issue, though it is a little odd to pay those who propose an idea to study their own proposal.

So how close is the ferry to becoming reality?

Merrill was cooler on the proposal, which calls for the county to spend $24 million on docks, parking and the boats, with HMS covering operating expenses. A number of hurdles remain, he noted, including approval from the Department of Defense to land the ferry at the Air Force base, and an agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land west of U.S. 41 and north of the TECO Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach that Turanchik’s clients have proposed for a ferry terminal and park.

In other words, we have no idea.

Transportation – Interesting but Unknown

Last week, it was reported that the Selmon Expressway will become a test bed for self-driving cars.

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority said Friday the Selmon Expressway has become one of 10 sites nationwide where researchers can study the safety and performance of automated vehicles.

But don’t expect driverless cars to join traffic any time soon. Most likely, the vehicles would be tested on the expressway’s elevated lanes during non-peak hours when officials could close the lanes to regular traffic.

The designation gives the Tampa area access to the businesses, automakers and researchers developing the technology, said the authority’s executive director Joe Waggoner. Long term, the goal is to make Florida a leader in driverless transportation systems.

“We think this is a coming revolution in transportation. A lot of the technology is there,” Waggoner said. “What it comes down to is moving it into practice. We want to know what it takes and be a part of it.”

* * *

The Selmon Expressway is one of two sites statewide that have been approved for driverless car testing by the Research and Innovative Technology Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation. The other is in downtown Orlando.

Nothing wrong with all that.  If someone is going to test a new technology, it may as well happen here.

The only issue we have with automated vehicles is that, while there is a lot of discussion about them, it is not clear whether they will be the modern equivalent of VHS or of betamax.  That will not be known for a while.  It is fine to work on these technologies, but putting too much faith in them could be folly.

Downtown/Channel District – The Start of Something, Finally

On Tuesday, the Skyhouse apartment building in the Channel District finally broke ground – hopefully the first of many new buildings in the area.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and many city officials were on hand Tuesday morning for a celebratory, if hot and muggy, groundbreaking event at SkyHouse Channelside’s future site, on North 12th Street between Washington and Whiting streets.

Atlanta-based developers Novare Group and Batson-Cook Development Co. have built several SkyHouse apartment towers around the country, each of which has a rooftop “skyhouse” — a community area with pool and lounge, fitness area and club room. Its new Tampa tower will follow the mold, offering 320 luxury units in 23 stories.

Great.

From the Times – click on picture for article

Tampa’s SkyHouse should open by the end of next year, along with at least two other big apartment and condo buildings.

One of those will be in Channelside, called the Martin on Meridian. Another is by the Straz Center — the Residences at the Riverwalk. There’s another project near the Straz that’s just getting started, as well.

Martin is supposed to break ground in March, and the Residences at the Riverwalk will begin road work to realign the lot in June.   As for the fourth project, we do not know to what it is referring, but we will be interested to see.

In other news, more information about the Lightning owner’s proposed hotel came out.

This week, the Tribune got an additional document from the city showing Vinik’s group proposes a 400-room hotel on the property. The document doesn’t mention a specific hotel brand, but that size would make it larger than the nearby Embassy Suites and Westin Tampa Harbour Island hotels, each of which have about 300 rooms.

It would be smaller, though, than the Marriott Waterside at 719 rooms.

Vinik’s hotel could be a player in small or midsize conferences with up to 100,000 square feet of meeting space, and it would have up to 45,000 square feet of commercial/retail space, the document shows.

Finally, 50 high-rise condo units would add an unusual mix to the building. 

As a general idea, that would be nice, though we would like to see the actual design.

In any event, finally things are moving in downtown. It is about time.  Other cities have been chugging along for a few years now.

Downtown – Making the Riverwalk Accessible

There was news this week that the City is going to make the Riverwalk full accessible.

Work will start this spring on a public elevator to provide access at the midpoint of the Tampa Riverwalk.

The elevator, required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, will carry passengers down from Kennedy Boulevard at the base of Rivergate Tower to the Riverwalk’s new Kennedy Plaza, now under construction between Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and MacDill Park.

The $250,000 elevator is being paid for by a mix of city funds and private money raised by the Friends of the Riverwalk. It’s not part of the $10 million grant that paid for construction of Kennedy Plaza, said Bob McDonaugh, Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s chief of economic development.

Without the elevator, a 900 foot length of the Riverwalk woukld [sic] inaccessible from outside — too far to travel for people in wheelchairs or others with limited mobility, McDonaugh said.

The city’s conceptual drawings show the elevator descending along the face of the Rivergate Tower parking garage adjacent to the Kennedy Boulevard bridge. Users will reach the Riverwalk from there by a small walkway.

That is a good thing.

Transportation – County Policy Blooming

This week, the County held a public meeting in Bloomingdale to discuss spending some road money set aside after the County approved a big box development over the opposition of the neighborhood.

They came to Bloomingdale High School to hear how residents would like to see developer money spent to reduce the impact of a big box store and apartment complex scheduled to go in next to the Bloomingdale Regional Library.

What the Hillsborough County Public Works staff got Tuesday night instead was a flood of raw anger from several hundred residents who say the county has done little to improve a road system that will be overburdened by the development it has been approving for years.

We are sympathetic to the crowd.  The County has done a horrible job of planning and allowed all sorts of development without having any way to pay for the roads and other transportation needed to handle the development.  That has been County policy for years.

On the other hand, the east County collectively (we haven no idea about individuals) has supported those who created those policies for years.

Meanwhile Elsewhere In the World

It seems that, like the Bro Bowl, London has had its own skatepark preservation issue.

The campaigners determined to preserve the Southbank Undercroft skatepark located at the Southbank Centre have won over plans to redevelop the area as a series of new restaurants.

Southbank Centre wanted to demolish Undercroft skatepark and relocate it 120 metres along the riverside, under the Hungerford Bridge, to make way for eateries as a means of providing commerical income for its Festival Wing redevelopment. But the proposed £120 million redevelopment met was with opposition from the skaters who use the park ever since plans were unveiled in March 2013.

In January Mayor of London Boris Johnson quashed the Southbank’s plans to move the skatepark after 27,286 planning objections to the development were delivered to Lambeth Town Hall, making it the most unpopular application in history. The Mayor said: “The skatepark is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London. It attracts tourists from across the world and undoubtedly adds to the vibrancy of the area – it helps to make London the great city it is”.

As made clear by London’s mayor, historic skateparks do have cultural value that enhances the city and should be leveraged, not fought against – even if that is not understood in Tampa City Hall.

Saving the Bro Bowl would not have any effect on any development, it just requires a good faith compromise that should have happened long ago.  If done in good faith, it will be a win-win for all the community.  We’ll see if the City can finally realize that.

List of the Week

Regrettably, we did not find any list this week that met our stringent standards.  Our apologies.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 9:22 AM

    I always enjoy the roundup. I don’t always agree with your points, but this is a great place to check for updates on everything.

    I totally agree with the density issue on the West River. I also don’t see how you make the river the “center” of downtown with subsidized housing.

    As for the other project near the Straz, the only thing I can think of is 1000 North Ashley that is/was on the market. The plans call for about 375 units, but I do not know the status of the project.

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