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Roundup 2-17-2012

February 17, 2012

Meet the New Competitiveness, Same as the Old Competitiveness

This week saw the release of a report by the Economic Competitiveness Committee set up by the Mayor of Tampa.

The Economic Competitiveness Committee, which Mayor Bob Buckhorn appointed, was made up of 17 lawyers, engineers, developers and builders, plus a City Council member and a neighborhood representative. It began meeting in early July and recommended changes with an eye on repairing the city’s damaged reputation in the business community.

Good.  Given the need for high wage tech and creative jobs and the brain drain problem, Tampa needs to get working. So what did they recommend?

“Over time,” the group said at the start of a 26-page report, “Tampa’s development review and permitting process has become confusing, unpredictable, time-consuming, costly, and in some cases onerous for anyone trying to do business in the city.”

To fix that, the group recommended changes in three areas:

• Codes and ordinances, which the committee said are disconnected and confusing. It recommended creating a unified development code and technical manual, along with a citywide review aimed at eliminating unnecessary rules.

• Staff and organization. It suggested merging staffs involved in development review into one department and establishing an ombudsman to guide complex projects through the review process.

• Process and technology. Part of this concerns establishing a single process to review permits and creating a more “customer-driven” culture; part calls for improving the city’s technology.

Wait, we thought this was the “Economic Competitiveness” committee.  All the recommendations revolve around real estate development permitting processes.  While real estate development is certainly part of economic development and should be addressed, having actual tenants for buildings and buyers for homes is another part of it.  Why didn’t the committee deal with any of those issues?  Probably because the “17 lawyers, engineers, developers and builders, plus a City Council member and a neighborhood representative” all are related to the real estate development industry.  This is the list. (It includes the person who wants to build this. The one lawyer used to work for the City and does real estate work in the private sector.)

Well, maybe the Mayor also sought to have the committee look into attracting high tech business and diversifying the economy.

Vision

In accordance with the Mayor’s plan, the Vision of the Mayor’s Economic Competitiveness Committee is for Tampa to be a community that is committed to sustainable economic development and open for business, and is aggressive about growing existing business and recruiting new ones. It is an attitude, a can-do spirit, a process that encourages success and celebrates entrepreneurship.

Mission

The Mission of the Mayor’s Economic Competitiveness Committee is to review the City’s development and construction regulatory system (codes, process and organization) and make recommendations to reduce the cost burden of regulatory oversight, to streamline and expedite plans, permits and processes with a focus on clients and outcomes. 

Nope.

It seems to us that this committee should have been a sub-committee of a larger, true Economic Development Committee that included other business leaders, the president of USF, and the airport and port directors.  So, what did the Mayor have to say?

“What this report does is give us a great tool to really change the culture, change the process, change the environment down there,” said Buckhorn, who often talks about the need to alter Tampa’s “economic DNA.”

Aside from speeding up development (without fixing a deficient code that allows poorly designed developments)), how does this actually change Tampa’s DNA?  Doesn’t it say that Tampa views real estate development as the core of its economy and is not particularly concerned about the quality of that development?  How is that different than before? We see no sign of any mutation.

As one of the committee members said:

Implementing the plan will take work and further discussion, but Tampa could survive the next downturn in better shape if it manages to change its brand, Abberger said.

“It’s bigger than most people realize,” he said.

We agree. Changing Tampa’s brand is huge.  Tampa needs to become known as a hub of technology and innovation, as a city with an urban character, not a conglomeration of suburban neighborhoods and poorly planned urban-ish areas.  It should be known as a city that really cares about itself and makes sure things are done “very well,” not just “ok.” (see this)   Until that happens, the DNA had not changed.

Hillsborough County Gets Into Economic Development

We also learned this week that Hillsborough County is also forming a committee to streamline development.While reducing bureaucracy generally is a good thing, this committee scares us a little given Hillsborough County’s seeming complete lack of interest in the quality of development and planning.  So what is the committee’s purpose?

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to create a task force to look for ways to streamline the county’s zoning and permitting rules. Two commissioners also will sit on the committee.

With the vote, commissioners also agreed to hire the Urban Land Institute for $125,000 to assist the effort.

Ok, maybe the ULI will give the County some good ideas to fix quality control – though the ubiquity of that organization in Tampa/Hillsborough County raises some questions.

In any event, we like this:

Commissioner Mark Sharpe argued that the panel should not simply seek to eliminate regulation just for the sake of it, but should focus on making the process easier to navigate. Other board members agreed.

Sharpe noted that development took off all but unchecked before the economic downturn. Excessive home construction is a key contributor to the slow turnaround, he said.

“If you’re going to make it easier to build more homes that we don’t need, is that the answer?” Sharpe said.

Thankfully, someone has pointed out the obvious.  And even better:

A separate technical advisory panel including such interests as Tampa International Airport, the Port of Tampa and other groups, will work alongside the committee. The stakeholder committee will be asked to meet for eight or nine months to come up with recommendations, and was charged with coming up with some easy pickings in two to three months.

This is not exactly what we think should be done as we explained in the section above, but at least the County is moving in the right direction.

A Frolic Through the Surface Parking

This week the City of Tampa announced that it has begun construction of the “Zack Street Promenade of the Arts.” Basically the project involves streetscaping of Zack Street downtown.  (Here is the plan) We are all for streetscaping. Downtown can definitely use it.  On the other hand, we are against making things up – it will not be a promenade (except in the sense you are walking – if you are walking) and Zack Street had almost nothing to do with “the Arts.”.  The City’s written statement says:

“Zack Street is the critical link between Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on the river and the Classic Federal Courthouse, soon to become a boutique hotel. The increased pedestrian activity alone will stimulate economic growth and transform Zack Street,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

No, it won’t.

Yes, Zack Street is the connection between the old Courthouse and Curtis Hixon Park.  Streetscaping it is nice.  But, we fail to see how pedestrian traffic will cause growth or transform Zack Street. Take a look at Zack Street from the air  and from the street.  There are literally two buildings between the old Courthouse and the park that have any street retail, the space of one, Skypoint, already is basically full.  In fact, most of the blocks facing Zack Street have surface parking lots.  Only one of the blocks is completely empty and could support a larger development – the former Maas Brothers building site, which would have been perfect for this if it was renovated, but it was torn down.  The most of the side streets off Zack lack retail space, too. So who is going to build anything there? (This is exactly the kind of dead street scape at which unfortunately Tampa excels and of which we warned of here, regarding the most recently proposed building downtown.)

We realize the Zack Street concept is a holdover from the previous administration, but the bottom line is this – If you want streetscaping, fine.  But that is all that it is (and, remember, these people might object).

Sparkling Downtown Temple Terrace

After years of discussion, it appears that Temple Terrace may actually be about to have a downtown – really more of town center.

The city planned to build a true downtown more than 80 years ago, but the Great Depression thwarted that effort.

After World War II, a strip mall went up on the ideal property in the south central part of town, and the vision seemed forever altered.

“It just got away from the original concept,” said Mayor Joe Affronti.

The Mayor is a master of understatement.  Well, now things may be changing.

Demolition of the strip mall is under way to make room for the Towne Park Residences, several four-story buildings containing about 214 luxury apartments. A 250-seat cultural center will go up opposite them, across Main Street, a park-lined, north-south road running through the middle of the tract. Eventually, a new city library will open next to the cultural center.

The developer, Vlass Temple Terrace LLC, is expected to present the site plan for the apartments to the City Council on Thursday. If it’s approved, construction should start in March, Affronti says. Vlass expects to start work on the cultural center in midsummer.

The $160 million Mediterranean Revival style complex will look like a village. Stretching along the east side of 56th Street from Bullard Parkway to the Hillsborough River, the 30 acres will have offices, stores and restaurants. The dining spots — and eventually more residential units — will go up near the river, a pond and a park. Sweetbay Supermarket anchors the area between the Towne Park Residences and the restaurants near the river.

We haven’t seen the finalized, full plan, so it is hard to comment on details.  However, this kind of local town center concept is badly needed in the Tampa Bay area.  People need a place to go and walk around.  Neighborhoods need a focus. We applaud the effort to make one.

(UPDATE 2-17-2012: After we posted the above item on Temple Terrace, we saw this article, which includes the following description of part of the proposal:

In addition, the complex would be surrounded by a 6-foot-high fence extending 900 feet from Bullard Parkway south to near the Sweetbay supermarket. Residents and guests would enter and exit the complex through controlled, access gates dotting the property.

That description alone makes us think that the developer definitely needs to go back to the drawing board because it is clearly not planning an town center, but just another run-of-the-mill apartment complex.  Better to build nothing and wait. We will look for more details and provide them as we find them.)

Speaking of Redevelopment

The ever-present Urban Land Institute issued a report this week about redeveloping the Hillsborough River riverfront northwest of downtown.

What did they say?

The future of Tampa’s downtown riverfront could hinge on redeveloping an area that includes the aging North Boulevard Homes public housing apartments.

Move the tenants, demolish the 682 apartments, and that would create a 40-acre site near the Hillsborough River ripe for mixed-use, mixed-income development.

* * *

• Redeveloping the city’s 12-acre wastewater vehicle yard near the river. Mayor Bob Buckhorn endorsed the idea, which he estimated would cost the city about $10 million. “It is high, it has got great view corridors into the downtown, and it is a block off the river,” he said.

• Increasing the density of new housing built in the area from the current 20 to 25 units an acre to at least 60 units an acre. This would draw private investment and the kind of stores and services that residents moving to a new neighborhood want.

• Improving transportation and creating more access points so residents from all over the city can get to and enjoy the riverfront.

• Bolstering programs at existing city and county recreation and community centers in the area with unique offerings — fencing, for example — not offered anywhere else locally.

• Capitalizing on immediate opportunities to make the riverfront more active and inviting. These could include opening a farmer’s market, incorporating the area into the activities of college rowing teams that already visit Tampa and bringing live performances to the amphitheater at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

We have seen the actual presentation and, frankly, it seems mostly to deal with the obvious – the riverfront is an asset that is woefully undeveloped, the development in the area is not that nice – and the bizarre, like farmers markets, concerts and art shows. Maybe some day, but not really the foundation for a revitalized, urban neighborhood.  Focus on the neighborhood.  The actual riverfront is a relatively easy sell – and should probably be a park all the way.

There are also some challenges to this “plan” listed in the article that you can read by clicking here.The Mayor said the following:

Buckhorn said the plan offers Tampa a historic opportunity to expand its downtown in a way that creates life and activity around an underused stretch of the river.

“Twenty years from now, they will say this is where we changed Tampa’s history,” he said. “Our job is not to put these plans on the shelf when these folks leave. . . . Our job is to go execute it. This is where it begins.”

Right.  The City’s job is to execute the ideas, and how they are executed is the key.  If the City tries to redevelop the area based on the present code and prevailing standards of development, it will not accomplish much and in twenty years (more likely in far fewer years), we will be talking about another report saying about the same thing.  If the City adopts a new code and redevelops the area patiently and in a truly urban way – not settling, it could be excellent and we will be enjoying spring weather at a café on the waterfront.  It can be “ok” or “really good.” The choice is all on the City.

Transit Usage

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reports this week in an article entitled “Public transit use low in Tampa Bay area”that:

Most people living in the Tampa Bay market do not rely on public transportation, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

No surprise there. What else?

Public transit dependency was highest in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, with 1.38 percent of the population using public transportation.

* * *

The New York City area relies on public transportation more than any other place in the U.S., with 30.5 percent of residents using it to travel to work.

Well, compared to New York, our usage is really low, but that is to be expected.  How do we compare to other cities?

The majority of markets in the U.S. have public transit usage rates lower than 1 percent.

Ok, so Tampa Bay is better than most – but relatively low.  Unfortunately, the  numbers are not fleshed out in the article, but they are in an article by the Journal’s sister publication.

San Francisco-Oakland is a distant second at 14.6 percent. Usage of public transit exceeds 10 percent in just five other markets — Washington, Boston, Chicago and two micropolitan areas in Florida: Arcadia and Clewiston.

So urban cities with good transit (and Arcadia and Clewiston?) have high transit usage.

Rates reflect the percentage of workers who ride any form of public transit to reach their jobs. (Most taxicabs are private enterprises, and hence are not included.) A total of 6.9 million U.S. employees regularly use public transportation, equaling 4.9 percent of the nation’s workforce.

Usage of public transit is typically quite small. Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s 942 markets have rates that are lower than 1 percent.

That gives a little perspective.  As does the interactive chart at the bottom on the sister publication article  which tells us that Denver (with elaborate rail) has 58,009 workers use transit to get to work for a total of 4.63% Phoenix (which has rail) has 40,406 workers use transit to get to work for a total of 2.21%, Charlotte (which has rail) has 16,361 workers use transit to get to work for a total of 2.01%, Orlando (which will be getting rail) has 16,874 workers use transit to get to work for a total of  1.71%, and the Tampa Bay area has 17,033 workers use transit to get to work for a total of 1.38%.  So, what comes first, the rail or the riders?

Charlotte Rail

Speaking of Charlotte, which is often held out as an example for the Tampa Bay area regarding transit, it was reported this week that Charlotte, which already has light rail, is getting $500 million in federal money (1/2 of the total) to expand its rail system.

USF Poly

Ok, did you really think we would pass the week without saying anything about USF Poly and the attempt by the state senator pushing its independence to shred USF Tampa’s budget, you are partially correct and partially incorrect. Frankly, events are moving to rapidly to say that much, other that USF is being treated unfairly.

We thought it would be more interesting to see what papers outside the Tampa Bay area are saying about USF Poly.  Interestingly, both the Orlando Sentinel  and the Lakeland Ledgeroppose the senator in his moves.

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