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Roundup 7-20-2012

July 20, 2012

The Floridan Lives

We begin this week with a short item simply because it excites us the most.  The Floridan is finally reopening with the grand reopening set for July 28.  (Hopefully, the Kress Building will be next.  Too bad the City let the Maas Brothers building go.)

From the Tribune – click on picture for full article

We have been waiting a very long time.  We’ll see you at the Sapphire Room.

InVisioning of the Obvious

This week, the Times had an article about some of the feedback from the InVision Tampa project.  Frankly, the initial outcome is an exercise in having a firm grasp of the obvious:

The plan hasn’t been written yet — two design workshops are scheduled next week — but Sechler said the feedback seems to be settling into five broad categories:

• Rethinking how people perceive the role of downtown.

• Neighborhood stabilization and improvement efforts.

• Creating more activities along the Hillsborough River.

• Downtown circulation issues, including sidewalks, bike lanes and one-way streets.

• Creating a city that better supports transit by linking the thinking about land use and transportation.

Most of this should have been addressed by the City long ago, with the possible exception of messing up traffic (and the issues we have mentioned regarding development on the river), but more on that later.  (It raises the question of why the City is spending money and time to learn the obvious.)

What is really interesting is the main statement of the obvious:

“The fundamental issue is that you don’t yet have a city that’s particularly transit-supportive, because it’s just not dense enough,” Sechler said. In 10 years, he said, that could be different as Tampa fosters the development of nodes that could better support transit.

Transit is one of the issues that discussion participants have brought up the most. In written comments about what Tampa should and shouldn’t do in the next five years, a must-do suggestion that turns up often is “Invest in mass transit,” while a leading must-not-do suggestion has been “Keep widening roads.”

* * *

No, Sechler said, but if the plan includes any mention of a baseball stadium or any other major community venue, it should be designed as one that people can walk to and that has a mix of uses, not one isolated by major roads.

“The next major investment like that that you make has got to be urban,” he said. “It’s got to be up on the street.”

You don’t say?  We are not going to disagree, because we do not disagree.  The real point is that it is so obvious the Tampa is not urban that we wonder why the City has not done anything to make it so – such as changing the city code.

We also wonder why the city is approving developments that clearly do not fit these criteria, like this and this. Neither of which is really adds to the walkability of downtown.

And now a note about traffic.  The Times article has the following:

“You have a lot of roads that are busy for about 20 minutes, and then they’re empty,” said Pete Sechler, the project manager for AECOM, a Fortune 500 consulting firm hired to work on Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s yearlong InVision Tampa project.

Instead of designing a downtown that’s geared toward handling an hour of heavy commuting every day, Sechler said officials might consider designing a downtown for the other 23 hours.

That could mean reworking how people think about downtown, changing the perception from it being only a business district for offices to a neighborhood where people live and shop.

First, we agree that downtown should be considered a giant mixed use area, the emphasis on MIXED use.  However, if mixed use means choking all the traffic downtown in the name of making it “pedestrian friendly,” people who do not live downtown will avoid downtown and go elsewhere – like Westshore.  Downtowns are a central location in a city that are as much for people living outside downtown (and even the City limits) as those living in downtown.  People have choices of where they will go.  If you make it too hard for them to get around, they will avoid the area.

Moreover, there are many cities where there are successful residential and retail developments in downtown without narrowing all the roads to make driving a mess (Look at St. Pete – yes, they changed some roads, but not like Tampa).  The key is to have adequate sidewalks, something to do on the sidewalk, properly constructed buildings, and some pedestrian havens (emphasis on “some”) like good parks.

To sum up, we are all for making changes to downtown, but most of those changes are obvious (Really, they have been obvious for years, the City has just lacked the vision and/or will to make them.)  However, we think there is a great risk of chucking a failed trendy approach from the 1980’s for a to-be-failed contemporary, trendy approach.  Instead of just following trends, the City should follow the tried and true – the obvious.  And is should have started years ago.

A Park

Tampa also is making some moves regarding the Water Works area in Tamp Heights.

Today, city council members will take up two requests by Mayor Bob Buckhorn: One to inject $4.7 million in redevelopment money into the city’s Water Works Park and the other to scuttle a development deal signed six years ago to surround the park with homes and businesses.

That deal was struck as the housing market collapsed. Since then, Water Works Park and the surrounding Tampa Heights Riverfront development district have languished behind a chain-link fence.

Ok, so far, so good.  What is the plan?

The city has been sitting on plans for Water Works Park since 2006. With millions of federal money headed to the Riverwalk, the city hopes to start construction on the park sometime next year, said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s economic development chief.

The basic concept for the park includes a playground, fountains, a grassy lawn, a stage and a launch for kayaks and canoes. It includes a state-funded effort to restore Ulele Spring, the city’s first drinking water source.

The park sits at the south end of the 77-acre redevelopment district, which encompasses a mix of residential and former industrial land. The site sits within sight of downtown, where the river bends sharply south on its way to meet Hillsborough Bay.

Voiding the existing development plans for the surrounding development district may encourage a new developer to consider the property, McDonaugh said.

The city is also asking the council to kill a development agreement signed in 2006 that envisioned nearly 2,000 residential units, nearly 300,000 square feet of retail and office space and 100 boat slips.

We have absolutely no problem with the basic thrust of these ideas.  Opening up the river to the public is a good thing (frankly we are not sure why the river is not a linear park all the way to Seminole Heights in the first place).  The plans for developing “The Heights” near the Water Works area are going nowhere, so the City should move on.  It is prime land.

Of course, the devil will be in the details.

The one thing we will say is that any project to replace “The Heights” concept should be as dense and as urban (if not more so) than the original plan, and leave the riverside public.  In other words, this is the edge of downtown and should be truly urban.  The City should not allow single family homes or low-rise and/or suburban style apartments.  Better to leave it empty for a few more years until a good plan comes along than settle now.  There hasn’t been anything there for a while, it can wait a little longer.

This Is a Use That Probably Shouldn’t Be Downtown

We also learned this week that there have been new discussions regarding moving the ConAgra mill in downtown Tampa. This is a mill downtown, next to Meridian in Channelside (see here)

The owners of the ConAgra Foods flour plant that sticks out like a sore thumb in the urban core of downtown Tampa say they are open to moving the plant.

If that happens it could free up the site for condominiums, apartments, stores, or even a baseball stadium.

The flour mill’s footprint along Finley Street and the properties to its south are considered a possible location for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark — although it would be a tight fit.

ConAgra’s relocation also could help make downtown more drivable, because a rail spur that serves the mill could be ripped out. Streets that now end at the mill could be extended to connect the Channel District better with the rest of downtown.

A ConAgra spokeswoman this week said the company has talked with the mayor and city officials and other interested parties about permanently relocating the plant, but she did not disclose the names of the other parties.

We have nothing against ConAgra, but the mill downtown is a vestige of a time long past.  Unfortunately, the mill slices Channelside from the main business district. Moving it (hopefully to somewhere else in Hillsborough County – which the company says it will do – see below) could be a boon to downtown.

If ConAgra relocates, the city could rebuild streets through the area that currently are interrupted by train tracks, McDonaugh said.

Meanwhile, the mill site and the land to its south at least conceivably could one day hold a baseball stadium. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said no one mentioned baseball when city officials met with ConAgra, and Buckhorn knows of no plans to purchase the property for that reason.

Baseball or something else.  It would be good to free up this site.  Of course, as with everything else, whether it is really good or not depends on what is built there and whether the City makes sure it is designed for an urban environment or just settles for something substandard that will haunt us for decades.

More on Gandy

Last week we wrote about the shelving of the Gandy Connector. Our basic point was that the road was needed and was shelved because of a lack of political will to confront a small group, regardless of the interests of a large number of drivers, who do not want to be on Gandy in Tampa.  This week, we got more confirmation of that point.

After concluding the $115 million roadway could support itself with tolls, the Expressway Authority put the project on the shelf. There are no plans for its board members to revive it on their own.

* * *

The connector would have siphoned off about one-third of the commuters who drive roughly 2 miles along Gandy to the expressway.

Critics said the lost traffic would strangle businesses that already went through 18 months of disruption while the state spent $20 million to widen and improve Gandy Boulevard in 2008 and 2009.

“It would be a ghost town,” Steenson said. “It would destroy the community.”

So at least 1/3 of the people driving on Gandy right now do not want to be there (not counting those who would take Gandy simply to avoid tolls).  Moreover, the road would pay for itself – satisfying those who oppose so many transportation projects that would not.  Moreover, Gandy is on the path to being completely overwhelmed, so the connector is needed.

Given all that, it is hard to believe that with the connector Gandy would be a ghost town.  Frankly, the connector would make the businesses on Gandy more accessible because it would remove from traffic those people who are not going to those businesses anyway.

But, alas, it is not to be. Given such decision-making, it is not surprising that Tampa has some of the nation’s worst traffic trends which does not help economic development.

HART – Money Going and Coming

A few weeks ago, we wrote about HART searching for money while at the same time giving back money to Hillsborough County, namely about $9 million for building BRT.   This week we learned that HART is receiving about $9 million in Federal money to upgrade its fleet. Of course, this does not give HART money for operating or BRT.  However, once again, money is fungible.  If HART is lacking money in one area but has extra in another area, they should be working on making the budget work.

They should also be working on making the system work more efficiently, because apparently it doesn’t.

Finally, maybe the sprawl loving, Tea Party members of the HART board can explain how they intend on fulfilling their duty in properly running HART given this (and if they will accept the Federal largesse):

Four out of five jobs in the Tampa area are within walking distance of transit stops, a Brookings Institution study has found.

But the typical employer can reach only 13.3 percent of area workers within a 90-minute trip by public transit, ranking the Tampa area 93rd out of 100 major U.S. cities.

The disconnect between transit-accessible job sites and convenient transit trips to work is more a function of geography and urban sprawl than shortcomings on the part of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit systems, the report’s author said.

We look forward to their explanation and both Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa changing their sprawl friendly codes.

Is That All – Cont.

This week’s version of Is That All actually involves something that is relevant to the City.

The nearly 40-year-old West Tampa Convention Center likely is headed for the rubble heap. Owners of the longtime gathering place for fiestas, banquets, dance recitals and old-fashioned politicking in election seasons have said it is in disrepair and too expensive to salvage.

On Thursday, Tampa City Council members supported a plan to replace the convention center with a Dollar General store. A second unidentified tenant also is expected to move onto the site at 3005 Columbus Drive.

* * *

“I’m glad it came to this,” Councilwoman Yvonne Capin said.

¿Qué? (It is West Tampa, after all.) We understand the building may not be able to be fixed, but glad it will be replaced by a Dollar Store?  Tampa is definitely lacking Dollar Stores.

Two buildings are planned; one of about 9,200 square feet and a second of about 6,800 square feet. The proposed size of the second building has increased about 1,300 square feet since a June 14 public hearing. At that earlier meeting, the council postponed voting so developers and city land-use staff members could resolve a dispute about where to place the buildings on the parcel.

Developers agreed to modify the project and put the buildings closer to Columbus Drive.

We are not sure what “closer to Columbus” exactly means, though we are quite sure it does not mean up to the sidewalk, like an urban building.  At least it is better than chicken farming and street signs, we suppose.

Insecurity Watch

We have noted before that the Tampa Bay area seems to have a self-image problem.  It often manifests itself in some odd comments. (see here about Tampa’s “coming out.”)  We understand that local leaders feel the need to sell the area, and we are ok with that – in fact, we are all for it.  However, we think it should be done in a confident, positive way, not as though we are always also-rans.  Therefore, we decided to start a new feature documenting comments we find, in the hope that by shining a light on them, we can help the area overcome its insecurity.   (Maybe it will help the Tampa Bay area stop settling for “ok” rather than insisting on “excellent.”)

This week, the German American Chamber of Commerce announced that it will open its Florida office in Tampa. That is good.  Hopefully, it will help business, and TIA will get a Lufthansa flight.

The announcement brought this comment from the Mayor of Tampa:

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday’s announcement is another sign — along with August’s Republican National Convention — that Florida no longer has two destination cities. It has three.

“When people think of Florida, they don’t just think of Miami and Orlando,” Buckhorn said. “They think of Tampa.”

We should hope so.  The Tampa Bay area is bigger than the Orlando area, and has been for decades (if not always).  We should be out there competing, leading, and getting other cities to make such comments about us.  If we have not been on the map, it again begs the question, what has the area been doing for the last few decades?

List of the Week

Our list this week is of the best hospitals in Florida. Tampa General came in first in the state.  Kudos.  The only downside is that it was built on an island in a flood zone that would be inaccessible in the event of a major hurricane.

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