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Roundup 5-25-2012

May 25, 2012

HART

This week HART planners, not the board, issued a report on a plan for the future:

Hillsborough transit planners have proposed a fare increase and service cuts to make up a budget deficit during the next five years.

Excellent, ridership is at record levels, so cut service and charge more. (We understand there are budget issues, but maybe they should go get more Federal money. (See “List of the Week,” below))  What else?

But looking ahead, HART leaders are now considering expansion of the system to keep pace with a growing number of riders – in part, by changing where the money comes from.

In a report released Monday, HART suggests asking voters to approve a new sales tax to fund the system and eliminate the portion of the property tax now dedicated to transit.

Ok, shrink then grow using sales tax.  What could go wrong?  The voters rejected a sales tax in 2010, but HART wants to try again to provide buses.  (Yea, we know, that was a new tax, this is a tax swap – that will raise more money [which means more tax collections].  We look forward to HART’s sales pitch.) Oh, and isn’t this the proposal that the Governor just rejected for Pinellas? (Good luck getting it passed.)

So what is the money for?

Their projections show the swap would boost HART revenue to help the agency buy as many as 250 more buses and several hundred miles of new routes, including more than 70 miles of bus rapid transit.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses that can resemble trains and can operate on regular streets or designated bus.

More buses, check.  More routes, check. BRT, sigh. Yea, BRT “can resemble trains,” but HART’s BRT plan doesn’t, so why even say it.  (Of course, the Governor may support it if it does not resemble train, at least in Tampa Bay.). Why didn’t HART consider rail?

Light rail options were not included in the scenarios HART revealed Monday because it wasn’t included in a long-range plan HART produced a year ago, after voters defeated a sales tax referendum on light rail and other transportation improvements.

In other words, they did not consider rail because they did not consider rail.

“Where do we want to be in 10 years,” Hillsborough County commissioner and HART board member Sandy Murman asked Monday.

Clearly, given HART’s report and our urban planning, we want to live in 1974, not anywhere near our competitor metro areas.

Not to worry:

The new report is intended as a point of departure for discussion, a “what-if” plan, not an endorsement of any particular strategy, HART chief executive Philip Hale said.

So they don’t really mean it anyway.  Or maybe they mean it but are scared to really stand up for it – just like the 2010 referendum.  In any event, not really a ringing endorsement for the proposal.

There was one interesting nugget in the article – even a little creative, while also a punt:

HART planners also devised scenarios involving only voters from the city of Tampa, including the creation of a $47 million streetcar loop, extending the line 2.7 miles north through downtown and east to Ybor City to reach current end points.

Officials have said it would cost too much to shut down the streetcar because money from $55 million in federal grants would have to be returned. But without serving more of downtown and running in a loop, ridership won’t grow, officials have said.

We have not delved into the Tampa-only idea that has been raised because no one has come up with a serious proposal.  If it works for a small system, fine; though transportation is a regional issue that Tampa-only plan would not solve.  Fixing our transportation issues will require intellectual honesty, vision, and the will to overcome the “party of no.”

Regarding expanding the streetcar, as we said last week – if the streetcar is viewed as an integral part of a greater transportation system, it stands good chance of success.  Of course, if Tampa does not start planning with an urban orientation, no transportation proposal will really work.

Juxtaposition Alert

SunRail started construction this week. Enjoy riding your fancy BRT bus in traffic.

Westshore – Ya, And?

The Tribune ran an article this week which told us the following:

Welcome to the new center of Tampa: West Shore.

Although downtown Tampa may have more skyscrapers, the West Shore district a few miles west now has twice as many workers and twice the office space. It’s tempting companies away from downtown as the go-to neighborhood for international brands moving to the city.

“The West Shore district has become a diverse community that serves the Tampa Bay region far better than downtown Tampa,” said commercial real estate broker Lawrence Anderson.

We are not really sure what the point of the article was.

First, it is hardly news that Westshore has more office space than downtown (whether it is twice or much or a smaller ratio depends on how you measure the very elastic boundaries of “Westshore.” For instance, the article mentions Hillsborough Ave – which to our mind is definitely NOT in Westshore.  Nor is Dale Mabry [see Westshore Alliance maps here] ).  Westshore has had more office space than downtown Tampa since at least the early 1990’s.

In terms of retail, the existence of Westshore Plaza has, to put it mildly, long been known.  That and International Plaza, which opened a decade ago, made Westshore the major retail center of Tampa, coincidentally, about a decade ago.

It has also long been known that there is some residential being built in Westshore (though it is all car-based).

None of this is surprising.  Westshore is the geographical center of the Tampa Bay area and right next to TIA.  It is logical that a major business district would grow there.  As with most major cities, Tampa has more than one business district.

We have no problem with that.  What we have a problem with is this:

For those looking to embrace the identity of Tampa, this means learning to love a landscape of mid-rise office buildings and parking lots scattered around the airport — a mini suburban city several miles from what many generations considered “downtown.”

In other words, the problem is that Westshore is a giant office park.  We do not have a problem with the mid-rise buildings.  We are not concerned about the top of the buildings – their height is restricted because of the proximity of the airport.  We are concerned with what is at the bottom – nothing but parking.  Westshore lacks basically every urban element and is essentially unwalkable.  (It is also odd that one of Tampa’s main hang out spots is at the mall.)  This is not just a problem from the perspective of harming Tampa’s urban environment, it limits Westshore’s potential. To wit:

For now, the most significant limit on West Shore’s growth is sprawl itself.

Similar to far-flung suburban office parks, current construction generally is mid-rise and spread out. That means more cars will come with every new project. As construction resumes to expand I-275, more traffic will speed into the neighborhood.

Without more transit options, West Shore may fill up with cars, Rotella said, so he’s pushing for more walking areas and a “circulator” system to move people about the neighborhood.

In other words, Westshore’s problem is that it is not urban. To have an urban orientation does not mean that the cheap parking has to go, just that it has to go in the back, away from the street.  The buildings can be built to the street (in fact some are, they just do not connect with the street in any real way.).  What could be an amazingly bustling, urban area is, instead, a car dependent, sprawled, and congested area with no room to expand roads and where to have a meeting you have to drive from one semi-attached parking garage to another.

The idea of circulator trolley-buses will not change that.  Buses sit in traffic, and the built environment is not pedestrian friendly. The only thing buses will do is get people to the mall.  The way the buildings are built has to change, and a bus will not cause those changes nor motivate developers to invest in ways that will cause those changes.

So what about downtown Tampa?

Tampa Downtown Partnership President Christine Burdick complimented West Shore’s development, noting the easy parking there, but she cautioned against direct comparisons.

“It’s really apples and oranges,” Burdick said. “Our place in the city and region is for unique, locally based, independently marketed companies and stores. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit here that’s done well for a while.”

She pointed to new residential projects in the city, including several hundred units just north of Channelside and along Bayshore Boulevard, and the new Le Meridien hotel going into a renovated former federal courthouse. Downtown is seeing a rush of activity around the Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art.

This is both wrong and right.  The real problem with downtown is that for far too long it was not differentiated from a suburban office park except for the fact that you had to pay for parking – so a direct comparison made sense.  There was no attention to street retail or urban design. There was no attention to a real walking environment.  Transit is still weak.  Frankly, downtown seemed (and in many ways still seems) to simply be attempting to recreate the suburban model – basically a vertical office park.  In any competition of in-town office parks, Westshore wins on parking cost and accessibility.

Downtown’s lack of urban-ness is starting to change to some degree, but, as we have noted, many of the recent plans for downtown still are essentially suburban.

Tampa needs to learn to be truly urban.  That is a real change of its DNA.  Anything else is just a little plastic surgery.

             One Final Note

Here we address a pet peeve of ours – the improper use of the word “tower.”  The article notes in a number of places that “towers” are being built in Westshore. (“Already, three new office towers are up and more are planned.”, “Seven new towers have added 1,800 new housing units from Hillsborough Avenue to Kennedy Boulevard.”)

We have always found the excessive use of “tower” in the Tampa Bay area a bit odd. A “tower” is

a building or structure typically higher than its diameter and high relative to its surroundings that may stand apart (as a campanile) or be attached (as a church belfry) to a larger structure and that may be fully walled in or of skeleton framework (as an observation or transmission tower)

A few other incredibly similar definitions here and here.

Essentially a tower is taller than it is wide.  By that measure, the Westshore district may have one or two “towers.”  A four story building must be very narrow to be a “tower.”  While it may be a “tower” in Waldo (though, really, even there it isn’t), in cities, it is known as a “four story building” and should not be remarkable.

Down By The River

This week, a new section of the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa will open. (The segment adjacent to a lot where the land owners want to put a parking lot. See our discussion here [scroll down]) That is a good thing.  It leaves a few (though quite large and expensive) segments of the Riverwalk to be built.

The Mayor had this to say:

“This gets us one step closer to the completion of this Riverwalk,” Buckhorn said. “The development of the riverfront will be the best thing we can do for downtown Tampa.”

Actually, not.  The development of the Riverwalk is a good thing, but there is almost nothing along the river in terms of restaurants and retail – and not much place to put any.  The buildings on the river generally do not connect to the riverfront.  Moreover, there is almost nothing along south Ashley Drive in the large buildings near the river (that will not be replaced for decades) that even faces the river other than large glass walls, loading docks, and parking garages, like this)  The entire way downtown is built essentially to ignore the river (as was putting the World Trade Center steel in the median of Bayshore, instead of in MacDill Park, along the river – downtown.).  Maybe some day, some buildings will address the Riverwalk, but for the foreseeable future, there are other things to be done.

The best thing to do for downtown will be to ensure that downtown has proper urban design and is connected to the rest of the area through proper transit.  The Riverwalk is only a piece of that.  When downtown is an urban location, then the Riverwalk will be start to be truly beneficial.

Oh, and, don’t allow a parking lot on the Riverwalk.

Zurich, anyone?

Today, flights between Tampa and Zurich on Edelweiss begin.   We wish it success.

List of the Week  – Turn off the TV and Don’t Answer the Phone

Our list of the week is “The 10 counties Romney needs to win” Number 2 is Pinellas County and number 1 is Hillsborough County.

If the Tampa Bay area is so important, how come we can’t seem to get money we need for our infrastructure and development? Maybe because we do not have a plan and vision.

Remember

Finally, enjoy the Memorial Day weekend and, please, take some time to remember the true purpose for the holiday.

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