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Roundup 7-13-2012

July 13, 2012

Downtown Tampa –The Ups and Downs

The Tribune ran an interesting article on the growing residential contingent in downtown Tampa. Some of the good news:

While the rest of Florida’s major cities showed little or no growth in the 15 months that ended in June 2011, Tampa added more than 10,000 people, 3.1percent, pushing its population to more than 346,000, according to the census report. St. Petersburg, by comparison, added just 228, or one-tenth of 1 percent.

* * *

Add in the once-struggling residential towers of the Channelside area, and the permanent population in the city’s urban core amounts to more than 3,000 “with room to grow,” said Stephen Griffin, a planner with the city-county planning commission.

That’s all good.  But there is some mixed news:

“During the boom you had an overhang of condos,” Wynne said. “So now it’s an absorption issue.”

Development has generated millions in new money for the city, which agreed in 1983 to channel additional tax revenue back into downtown through a community redevelopment district.

Since then, the city’s tax base in downtown has more than tripled to $1.5 billion.

In the past five years, the city has invested more than $4 million in the urban core to make it more attractive. Spending peaked with the construction of Curtis Hixon park in 2008.

Depressed property values cost the city more than $1.5 million in taxes downtown from their 2009 peak. Last year, the city’s downtown redevelopment district spent $525,000 more than it took in.

Hey, that is ok as long as there is a vision and a plan to increase the tax base and the money spent is a proper investment in pursuit of that goal.  If so, it should pay for itself in the long run.  There is clearly a market for urban living in Tampa:

“I’ve always wanted downtown Tampa to be a cool, urban, vibrant part of the city,” Burton said.

But downtown still has a way to go for that, he said.

The area is dotted with vacant lots now used for parking. There’s still no supermarket — the nearest one requires a hike to Platt Street and Bayshore Boulevard. Residents meet their spur-of-the-moment needs are a CVS store and Duckweed, a tiny bodega near Polk Street and Florida Avenue stocked with organic food.

But urban pioneers like Burton are willing to live with the inconvenience.

“We really do like this lifestyle,” Burton said. “If we do move, it won’t be far. We don’t see ourselves as suburban-type people.”

The real question is whether the City is smart enough to take advantage of that market and develop it, especially in and around downtown.  To do that, the City must start to think in a truly urban fashion and change the code, at least in the areas in and near downtown, regardless of whether the Urban Land Institute says so or not.

And a subset of that issue – on a recent evening downtown we noticed that, despite nice landscaping on Franklin street, there was surfeit of garbage cans on the sidewalk and curb.  We understand some of downtown does not have alleys to put the garbage cans, but leaving them on the curb between the planters seems like an odd solution.  Surely there is a better way.  Why hasn’t the City found it?

Speaking of Downtown

Continuing with the City and downtown, we caught wind of an RFP the City put out for development of the land immediately west of the Germany library.

Courtesy of K Thurman on Skyscrapercity.com – click for posting

We find this RFP quite odd.  First, and most easily noticed, the lot has streets running through it making it possible to navigate the one-way roads in the area. (Is the City going to close the roads?) Second, the lot is very small and oddly shaped.  Third, this lot is not really in a high traffic area if you do not include the skywalk from the Poe Garage to the Straz Center. (Do they envision a development of the skywalk?) Finally, there has been little publicity for this RFP.

It is completely unclear that 1) this lot is developable and 2) that it should be developed rather than saved to expand the library.

This RFP seems ill-conceived.

You Take the High Road, I’ll Be Stuck in Traffic

The Tribune ran a nice, if not particularly pertinent, article about Selmon Crosstown/I-4 Connector this week. This is a long overdue project finally made possible by the Federal stimulus money.  We are glad it is being built. (even if the Crosstown should have been connected to I-275/I-4 downtown a long time ago).  It fills a gap in the area infrastructure that has been left unaddressed for far too long.

One other gap that has been left unfilled for far too long is connecting the Selmon Crosstown to the Gandy Bridge (and really making Gandy limited access to I-275 in St. Pete).  While we did not like the Expressway Authority’s plan for a narrow connector, it is better than nothing. Unfortunately, it seems that even this inadequate solution is too much for the small number of people who are complaining – harming the entire area.

The plan to connect the Gandy Bridge with the Selmon Crosstown Expressway is on hold.

That may be bad news for drivers, but it’s great news for many businesses in South Tampa.

Traffic along Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa flows smoothly and rapidly on a regular Saturday morning, but if plans to connect the Gandy Bridge with the Selmon Expressway directly were approved, it would probably be a lot quieter.

The project has been talked about for years, but just recently the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority put it on the shelf with no plans to bring it back.

* * *

That may be bad news for drivers wanting to get from A to B a little quicker, but for businesses in the South Tampa area such as Rainbow Play Systems, it’s exactly what they have been hoping for.

“I get people stopping in here just simply because of the traffic,” Phil Riley of the playground store said. ” They’ll pull in because they’ve got grandkids or kids and they want to know about the play systems, said Phil Riley, Rainbow Play Systems.

The people at Rainbow Play Systems said their business is sustainable because it’s in a high-traffic area in which the cars that drive by can see what they have to offer.

To be honest, no one has any idea what would happen if the connector was built, but we do know what it is like without it. Moreover, how about the far larger number of people who do not stop, do not want to stop, and want to get where they are going?  How about the people who want to get somewhere on Gandy without being stuck with all the through traffic forced onto the road that does not want to be there?

Yes, this is bad news for drivers who are being punished because local leaders cannot bring themselves to fix the traffic needs of the area in the face of a small, vocal group of opponents – again. (In an example of how this will eventually play out, Tampasphere recently was driving through Lutz noting how the “rural” area saved when Hillsborough County caved on connecting the Veterans to I-275 decades ago now has a number of not very rural subdivisions full of McMansions.  Moreover, many of the east-west roads in the area now have traffic impediments [otherwise known as “traffic calming”] measures, just to emphasize that the County wants to impede travelling in that direction.)

When you wonder why we have so many transportation issues, here is part of your answer.

Coming Out?

The Republican National Convention will be here soon.  We are fine with having the convention – traffic, protesters, walling off downtown and all.  It will be good for the local economy, we think.  But we think people should temper their expectations.  Take this:

“When this is said and done, the world will have a new view of Tampa, Florida,” Buckhorn told Allen. “It’s our coming-out party.”

The world may have a new view of Tampa after the convention (or it may not), but it is not our “coming out.”  Look, the Tampa Bay area media market is around 3 million people and is in the top 15 in the country (see here, here, and here) .  We have three major sports teams, have had numerous Super Bowls, have been a major political battleground for years, and have (at least the back office operations) of a number of large corporations.  How can it be that we are still waiting for “our coming out?”  What has been going on for the last few decades?  What were those Mayors, their staff, and those City Councils doing? Moreover, why is it that other cities do not wait until a convention for their coming out (say Seattle)? By the way, we do not recall hearing the St. Paul (the last host) has had a massive boom since it hosted the RNC.

Let’s put on a nice show, but let’s not oversell it.  We have much more work to do after the convention is long gone.

The Port – Business as Usual

A few weeks ago we noted an opinion piece in the Tribune  regarding the process for replacing the departing Port Director.  The main point of the piece:

This certainly makes it look like the departing director is orchestrating who will select his successor or who his successor might be. Bad idea!

* * *

Commissioner Patrick Allman suggested port commissioners dispel any rumors or perception in the port community that the issues of what company would serve as headhunter and who might be the next port director had already been decided.

* * *

The motion was met with silence and died for lack of a second.

Basically, the piece was concerned that the Board was letting the outgoing Director select his successor.

As we noted:

The Port Director search process should be fully open.  In fact, the present Director should not be involved at all.  We cannot afford the continuing lack of vision and failure to solve problems while others steal business that should be ours.

Unfortunately, it appears the Port Board may be ignoring these concerns and is moving ahead full steam with a prearranged plan.

We hope that is not the case. Given all the needs of the Port and a number of issues, such as the potential loss of the cruise business, the Jacksonville/Disney deal, the need to address properly the expansion of the Panama Canal, and, last but not least, duty to the taxpayers, we wonder when and if the Port Board will realize that the status quo is neither tenable nor acceptable.

Where is the change in DNA?

The  Rays – Business as Usual

This week the Commissioner of Baseball (for whom we have little affection) said the following:

“What I’ve said to you in the past, I’ll say to you again, and I’ve said this to Stu quite a bit. I’ve been through a lot of these things over the last 20 years, actually the last 40 years, and I understand that, but, look, they’ve run a great operation, they’re a very competitive organization, they have very competitive teams. As I study the attendance every day, looking where they are, to see that they’re No. 29, I think it is, in attendance is not, is, it’s inexcusable. Nobody can defend that.

“This is a very competitive baseball team.  I know they’ve had a lot of injuries, so on and so forth, and they’ve missing (Evan) Longoria and all that is true. But the average major-league attendance is between 31,000 and 32,000 and if my memory is serving me well this morning, it’s about 19,000 something, Tampa’s attendance. Now if they were a club in last place every year the last five years you’d say, well, look, after all, you are what you are and you’ve got to do better.

“It’s disappointing. And I know that people down there, some people, will be offended. Not the fans, not the people who go every day and I know they have great intensity, the people there. As all of you know, I watch a lot of games every day, sometimes all 15 of them, and I pay great attention not only to what’s happening on the field, but to the attendance.

We don’t know about “inexcusable,” but the Rays’ attendance issue is bad and a continuing source of national ridicule for the area.  There are a lot of explanations, like many listed in this opinion piece from the Times.

1. Tampa Bay’s population is not on par with those in a lot of other Major League markets. 2. The Rays are not a century-old institution the way teams are in Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. 3. A lack of corporations hurts, as does the number of service-industry workers and retirees on fixed incomes. 4. The recession has hit Florida, and this market, much harder than it has hit the rest of the nation.

None of which means that Tampa Bay doesn’t have a problem with attendance. Heck, I’ve shouted about that as much as anyone else.

And if you want to include Tropicana Field’s location and its lack of ambience as a significant part of the equation, I would not argue with that.

Well, yea, we want to include location, namely because it is the biggest issue. (Like it was in 2005)  Of course, the Mayor of St. Peterburg had his usual constructive comments.

Not even St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster defends that.

“I’m equally disappointed with the attendance, so for once the commissioner and I agree,” Foster said.

He doesn’t agree the region is responsible for low turn out.

“Nowhere in our agreement with the Rays has the city accepted responsibility for attendance,” he said. “Per our agreement that runs through 2027 we build the house.  We pay for the house, and you play baseball.”

Well, Mr. Mayor, they are playing baseball – usually quite well – so your comment is unresponsive to the issue.

Plainly, the Mayor is more interested in making sure the St. Pete taxpayers continue to pay for the stadium and any replacement than working out an innovative and constructive deal for the benefit of the whole area.

Unfortunately, given this, we cannot say we are surprised.

List of the Week – When St. Pete Does It Right

In contrast to the previous item, our list of the week is world’s most beautiful museums. Among museums like the Hermitage in the other St. Petersburg (Russia) and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, is the Dali Museum in St. Pete, at 13.

Clearly, this area can do things properly when it wants to.  Unfortunately, too often, it seems the will is lacking.

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