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Roundup 10-19-2012

October 19, 2012

PSTA/HART – Record Ridership For This Bulwark Against the UN

PSTA numbers keep going up.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority also broke ridership records providing more than 14 million rides, 912,000 more than in FY 2011.

So do HART’s:

HART set an annual bus ridership record for the third consecutive year, with passenger trips increasing 4.3 percent to more than 14 million.

Clearly, the demand is there.

“Although we may not yet have light rail to serve commuters and visitors, record ridership for the third straight year in a row shows that this community has noticed HART’s transformation from the bus system of an earlier time,” said Fran Davin, chair of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board.

No, we do not have light rail.  We are not sure the riders noticed changes at HART (like service cuts) or whether they just need the service and have few choices.  We are pretty sure that lack of good transit is noted by major companies and young professionals looking to relocate. (See number 2 in the list at the end of this article.)  And HART, while cutting service, is planning to spend money on modernization and fancy buses it calls “rapid transit.” (They are not “rapid transit,” but we are not going to go over the whole bus thing again. You can read here and here.)

One thing we do know, we have little faith in the HART board to work for real, comprehensive solutions to help make us competitive in the 21st century.  Why?  Well, there is the bus expert on the board and one Tea Party member of little note.  Then there is the other Tea Party member, who was even profiled by the New Yorker:

That year, Sarah Palin became the first politician (Jaroch doesn’t like the word—she prefers “statesman”) since Ronald Reagan to capture her imagination. In Palin she saw herself—or a version of herself who wasn’t afraid to speak out. They were the same age, had married at the same age, came from modest backgrounds, held the same views. “There is a powerful élite that really controls things,” Jaroch told me. “She was an outsider. And her experience on the P.T.A. is something I can relate to.”

* * *

Within a year, Jaroch—still shy but getting over it—was one of the most visible Tea Party activists in Florida. Every local politician knew her name. She appeared on “Campbell Brown,” terrified but poised, to explain the chaos that greeted Tampa’s Congresswoman Kathy Castor at a town-hall meeting on health care (Jaroch blamed it on union members, not Tea Party activists). She organized seminars for 9/12 members on American history and the true principles of the Constitution. And in 2010, when the county commission voted to allow an initiative onto the fall ballot that would fund a light-rail system around Tampa with a one-cent sales-tax increase, Jaroch and another woman led the opposition.

A lot of powerful forces were on the other side: the Chamber of Commerce, the South Tampa elite, the city’s mayor, the St. Petersburg Times. Also on the other side was Tampa’s status as the largest metropolitan area in the country without rail. Charlotte, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix all had rail, and seemed to be enjoying the benefits of urban development that its proponents say it brings. Getting around Tampa Bay in a car is increasingly difficult, and without one it’s a nightmare. (Just ask the Florida Republican delegation here at the convention.)

But to Jaroch, rail became a signature issue, like tax cuts and abortion to earlier generations of conservatives. Rail represented government waste and bloat, and, beyond that, European-style socialism, bringing high taxes, less freedom, and a threat to the suburban way of life. She warned against the influence of planners, and she sometimes invoked Agenda 21, a nonbinding United Nations “sustainable development” initiative from the early nineteen-nineties that Jaroch and other conservatives regard as an ominous danger to American sovereignty.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/08/karen-jaroch-tampa-tea-party.html

This says it all.

Frankly, we are shocked that the Tea Party has not rallied against the greatest threat to our way of life – the encroachment of this Euro-evil rail within sight of the America’s largest naval base at Norfolk, VA, the Tide Rail.   It even connects by public bus to said Naval Base – with a future plan to bring rail to the base. (Just for the record, final approval was in 2007.)  Not to mention rail right at the front gate of the crucial naval base in San Diego and even a subway stop at the Pentagon. Shocking.

Indeed, it seems this anti-rail transportation Bunker Hill shall be fought in Tampa, since every other city of note, north-south-east-west (except Detroit) has already fallen for rail. (In Texas, that bastion of UN support, rail is growing: Houston and DallasUtah, that bastion of capitalism, has light rail.   Even Oklahoma City wants it.) And it is now clear that one local über-Republican is actually a socialist mole.

The reality is this: Stopping rail – even public transit – is a moral issue to this Board member, which makes one wonder why the Hillsborough County Commission (three members of which are also on the HART board – two of those voted for her) put her on the board.

How can we take the HART Board seriously when it includes members that think that rail is a socialist, UN plot?

HART/PSTA – should they get together

A while back the legislature told HART and PSTA to consider merging, which many board members, including the Tea Party folks and bus expert opposed outright, rather than actually examining it.  This week, there was a little news:

The Florida Legislature is requiring the transit authorities in both counties to report by Feb. 1 on a potential merger, additional consolidation or reorganization of each agency. Legislators hope one or more of the options would result in lower costs.

The two agencies already share intercounty bus routes and buy fuel together to trim costs.

Of eight merger or consolidation attempts studied by McCollom Management Consulting of Darnestown, Md., all but one resulted in no changes or only small steps toward consolidation.

“It’s remarkable how many cities have considered transit consolidation, but Hampton Roads, Va., is the only one that’s done it,” said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chief executive Brad Miller.

That is interesting but not necessarily relevant. (It is interesting that the one merger discussed involves Norfolk. The horror!) It does not speak to the organizations that attempted merger and what their specific conditions were. (It does speak to the stubbornness of bureaucracies.) What we are interested in are the conditions here.

Additionally, it also does not speak to organizations that crossed county boundaries from the beginning – and whether they function more effectively.

We await the report – maybe it will address the real issues.

Goings On Downtown

A few months ago the City of Tampa, without any public discussion, released an RFP for the lot behind the Germany Library.  We thought it ill conceived because 1) it was not clear that the lot was developable and 2) it was not clear that the lot should not be saved to build a new library. It turns out we were correct about part 1.  Part 2 is up for debate.  How do we know this?  Because this week the Times ran a story about the ONLY response to the RFP. It is an interesting proposal:

The developer of the SkyPoint and Element high-rises is talking to City Hall about building a riverfront apartment tower up to 35 stories tall next to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

A joint venture between Greg Minder of the Intown Group and Phillip Smith of the Framework Group has proposed paying $4 million — subject to terms and conditions being negotiated with the city — for city property behind the annex to the John F. Germany Public Library.

As proposed, their $88 million project would include ground-floor space for stores, restaurants and Straz offices, practice spaces or other arts center operations. Rising above that, developers envision an Art Deco tower with 350 apartments. The project also would include up to 600 parking spaces, with a pool and fitness center above the parking deck.

So, you might ask, how were we correct about #1?  Because the proposal wants a bigger lot.

In response, City Hall got just one proposal, from the Intown-Framework team. The president of each company is associated with big projects in Tampa. Minder teamed up with an Atlanta developer for the 32-story SkyPoint and 35-story Element residential towers. Smith is currently developing the 350-unit Varela apartment complex at Lois Avenue and Spruce Street in West Shore.

In a 67-page plan, the developers proposed a site that doesn’t quite overlap with the city’s triangular site. Instead, it’s a rectangle that would take in the end of the driveway out of the Straz, along with part of Tyler Street.

Using the site that’s proposed would mean reconfiguring the streets in that area into a more traditional grid, an idea Buckhorn says he would entertain. One goal of the design, according to the proposal, is to slow incoming traffic on Tyler to improve the experience of Straz patrons as they go to and from the center.

Because the outline of the site is still being negotiated, Minder said it’s too early to say how the project might affect an elevated walkway between the William F. Poe parking garage and the Straz. But he did say developers are not proposing to demolish or tie into any existing buildings.

Basically, the lot would look like this:

From skyscrapercity.com – click on picture for website

From skyscrapercity.com

The rendering floating around, though we can’t confirm it is the right rendering, looks something like this:

From Framework Group – click on picture for website

Our initial reaction is that we have no problem with the idea presented – as an idea.  Though, if the city is going to do all this, it should consider selling the whole library lot and build a new library on other city land.  There is an upside to putting housing/retail in this location and connecting the Straz to the rest of downtown (finally).  It would also help the Riverwalk (and shows the lack of urgency in adding a new museum to Curtis Hixon Park).

Is there a timeline?

The schedule is likewise uncertain. If the parties came to terms by the end of this year, the developers outlined a schedule that would have the tower open in the third quarter of 2014.

But there’s no rush, Buckhorn said.

“It’s our property,” he said. “We’re going to move on our time frame.”

That is the proper attitude.  But the same is true for Cutis Hixon Park, and it is getting different treatment.

We have two main concerns.  First, the deal needs to be good for the City.  The cost of redoing the roads is one issue.  Messing up traffic is another, especially given that the west side of the river is to be redeveloped, making the Cass Bridge that much more important for the future.  The layout of the building and the prominence of retail on the street is also important.  But that can all be worked out.

The other concern we have is broader – there is a recent trend of the City, without warning, issuing RFP’s that only get one response.  It may be completely innocent and we are not singling out a specific project, but it has an appearance that raises questions.  We are all for developing downtown and recognize that negotiations can be delicate, but RFP’s exist for a reason.  Through a competitive RFP the City may get a better deal or project than it thinks it can, like the old courthouse or North Boulevard Homes (Though the latter is premature in our eyes because there agreement on what the City wants the developers to do – it better be urban.  Frankly, we are not sure why there is no plan and then numerous RFP’s for different aspects of the plan.) And if you only get one proposal, maybe you should wait.  There is no harm in seeing.

Downtown – Kress Block

However, there is harm in allowing bad projects in some of the few remaining, nice, old buildings downtown.  We were on Florida Ave this week and happened to notice a sign for a Kress block project which had a rendering which was first presented to the City Council by the present day City Attorney.  This:

From loopnet.com – click on picture for webpage

which is below subpar.  Not only does it ruin the old buildings on the block – it is just plain ugly. And how about that parking garage?

There has been no announcement and we don’t know if this project is really revived as it, but approving that old design would be a classic example of settling.

Channelside Saga Continues

In the last few weeks, we have learned that the Lightning owner has been buying up land around the Forum and is also closer to taking over the Channelside complex.

Two weeks ago a Vinik partnership, Crestline Acquisitions Group LLC, paid $9.5 million for a narrow, 5-acre strip owned by the Italiano family that sits across from the Times Forum. It’s right next to 7 acres that another group tied to Vinik, Pinnacle Channelside Properties LLC, bought last year for $6.8 million.

* * *

The land assembled by Vinik’s partnerships is bordered by Channelside Drive on the south and the ConAgra Foods flour mill on the north. The lots were being leased for parking by the Lightning and will still be used for that. But now the team won’t have to pay for it anymore.

As for Channelside, the complex:

Klug said that the Anglo Irish Bank, which foreclosed on the property in 2010, is also working to eliminate the one party that could delay Vinik’s takeover: the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.

* * *

Vinik’s group, Metis Channelside LLC, has spent months negotiating with the government-controlled bank to take over Channelside. Then Metis must submit its proposals and lease terms to the Tampa Port Authority board for final approval. The authority owns the land under Channelside so the board has the final say on any deal.

* * *

But Klug said that he was told by the Metis people that the bank is negotiating some kind of agreement whereby Ashkenazy would not exercise that right to match the offer.

We have said we have no problem with the Lightning owner buying the complex.  Our concern is what he will do with it. So what is all this land for?

Vinik and his partners already have plans to do just that on the southern side of Channelside Drive. They envision refurbishing and relaunching the beleaguered Channelside Bay Plaza; adding new development like a hotel to create a contiguous waterfront development from the Times Forum to the Florida Aquarium; and tying it all to the city’s Riverwalk. They’re negotiating with the Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin to take over the foreclosed plaza.

What might it be like?

But the board members have seen the Vinik group’s ideas for remaking the 234,520-square-foot complex and the reviews have been favorable.

The template board members point to is L.A. Live, a sprawling mixture of condos and hotels, restaurants and shops, next to the Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings play in the NBA and NHL, respectively. Vinik has a link to the L.A. project: L.A. Live executive Tim Leiweke is the brother of Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke.

This is LA Live. It is nice, to a point.  There is a lot of surface parking around it.  It also looks suspiciously like a mall – which is not quite urban.  On the other hand, it is a nice concentration of features that, done properly, could really revitalize a city. (Done wrong, they will basically kill it.)  We have no problem with the basic idea (though do we really want to hold out LA as the model of urban design?), but we do have an issue with the Port Board seeing the plans but not the public – which actually owns the Port which owns the land.  We are also concerned, as we have said before, about things like this:

The Vinik group has also pitched ideas like building a pedestrian bridge between Channelside and the parking garage to reduce foot traffic on Channelside Drive. Port staff were set to meet with Metis officials on Tuesday to discuss the idea further.

“We’re going to meet with them with our ideas of where a pedestrian bridge should be and their ideas where it should be,” said James Renner, the port’s senior director of real estate. “We’re going to walk around and take a look. There are issues about how does it serve the garage versus how does it serve the development? What does it cost here and what does it cost over there?

What they intend is unclear.  If there is a question about people blocking Channelside Drive as they cross the street from the garage, they have a point, but any new Channelside should be developed to be a very active street, not a street that people avoid.  We do not need dead streets downtown and we want foot traffic on Channelside Drive.  The problem is that we haven’t seen the plan so we cannot tell.  Moreover, we have questions about the Port board.  They have shown little evidence that they understand urban development – though we hope they surprise us.

The bottom line is, despite the media and government excitement over the plan, we are just waiting to see what it is.  And, really, we hope they develop a city than a glorified downtown mall.

Streetcar, CSX, and the Port

Last week we noted that the streetcar spends $400,000 a year paying for insurance for CSX and that the streetcar would not need money from the Port if the cost were lower.  We also noted the Port has a relationship with CSX.  We wondered why no one seemed to be pushing CSX to lower that cost. This week brought a number of articles about all the efforts to reduce this payment.

The Times ran an article that tells us this:

“We have thrown out a lot of things to them and we have not come up with a solution to this,” said Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who sits on the streetcar board.

Suarez is also an insurance executive who has lobbied CSX to reduce the requirement. But CSX holds all the cards, he said.

“They have not agreed to anything,” he said. “They have all the legal rights. We’re not in a position of being equal partners here.”

CSX spokesman Gary Sease said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the company believes the $100 million insurance policy is necessary. He also noted that it was agreed to 10 years ago.

* * *

“CSX has previously undertaken a good faith effort to analyze the level of liability protection, and has reaffirmed that $100 million is required,” Sease wrote in his email. “We have worked with local officials to identify other sources for the required insurance, including insurance coverage held by local governments or state agencies. Those efforts are ongoing.”

And this:

The struggling streetcar system’s viability became an issue once again last month when the Port Authority’s governing board debated whether to continue its $100,000 subsidy.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a member of the port board, saved the subsidy after making an impassioned pledge to appoint new board members to the streetcar and come up with a new business plan. Port board members were still fired up about the issue at their meeting Tuesday.

They recounted how at a Sept. 25 port press conference, several of them personally complained about the $400,000 premium to CSX executive vice president and chief commercial officer Clarence Gooden. They said the executive told them they needed to complain to someone else at the company.

Port Commissioner Peter Altman called the premium “insane.” One solution to help turn things around, he said, would be to give the nonprofit another $50,000 to hire professional staff to handle things like marketing to boost ridership.

The Tribune told us this:

The streetcar board is tired of paying a fourth of its budget for insurance for an Ybor City rail crossing, and on Wednesday board members decided to ask lawmakers to help them do something about it.

The TECO Line Streetcar System’s board pays $400,000 a year for an insurance premium for the crossing. CSX officials have said in the past they required the insurance for permitting the streetcar to cross their tracks.

Board members have discussed the issue for months. On Wednesday, they suggested renewing a quest for state legislative support for some type of solution to the insurance quandary.

And this:

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, three board members said they individually discussed with a CSX Corp. executive an onerous rail crossing insurance policy that is costing the streetcar board $400,000 annually, more than 25 percent of its annual budget.

The three port commissioners — Patrick Allman and William “Hoe” Brown from Hillsborough County’s private sector, and county Commissioner Sandy Murman — said they informally raised the issue last month during the dedication of the CSX-Port of Tampa Gateway Rail Project.

* * *

It is the first time Tampa business leaders and elected officials have publicly said they are questioning CSX about the policy, which has bedeviled the streetcar board for years. (Italics added)

Then maybe they should have been public earlier.

What the articles did not get into was this – the SunRail deal cost the state $432 million for a variety of things. And the insurance costs, from a 2010 article:

Florida plans to purchase up to $200 million in liability insurance over the next three years as it begins construction of what could become a statewide railroad system that eventually connects Tampa to Orlando to Miami.

State lawmakers during a December special session approved the insurance purchase as part of a broader agreement intended to help lure nearly $4 billion in federal aid. State officials hope the legislation will free up the federal funds by showing Florida’s commitment to two planned rail projects in Central Florida and an existing line in South Florida.

Florida is buying liability insurance because the state plans to indemnify CSX Transportation, which is selling 61 miles of railroad track in Central Florida to the state. These tracks will be used for a commuter rail project known as SunRail. CSX wants the indemnification because it will continue to use the tracks for freight operations, and company officials say adding commuter rail trains will expose them to significant risks.

The indemnity provision — along with the accompanying insurance purchase — had been one of the most contentious elements of the rail package. State legislators scuttled the deal with CSX twice in the last two years over liability concerns.

This final deal is similar to one in place for Tri-Rail, an 81-mile commuter rail line that runs from West Palm Beach to Miami. The state will spend $10 million to set up a self-retention fund that will be used as a deductible for the liability insurance policies and to pay off smaller claims related to the rail system.

Rep. Gary Aubuchon (R-Cape Coral), sponsor of the rail legislation, pointed out that in 20 years the state has never been forced to tap into its liability policy for Tri-Rail, and that state officials hope the same will happen with its other rail projects.

Here is an RFP for the insurance.

Surely 1) one relatively little used railroad crossing in Tampa is not even close to ½ the liability risk of 61 miles of much used track in central Florida and 2) our legislators and local leaders could have piggy-backed the cost of insuring that one railroad crossing into the huge CSX/Sunrail deal.  Of course, we missed that opportunity.  Once again, Orlando gains, and we pay.

On the other hand, we are happy people are talking about it.  Hopefully, this situation will get fixed.

               One More Thing

In addition, the Tribune had an article which reported that the Port Board is considering increasing its funding to the streetcar by $50,000 so the streetcar can hire a Director.

Allman raised the notion of the port authority trying to help the streetcar system improve its financial standing and image. The director’s salary might be relatively low, but not out of line with the pay for leaders of nonprofit groups, port board members said.

Allman withdrew his motion to supply an additional $50,000 to the system until the next meeting, to allow Mayor Bob Buckhorn who to offer his suggestions on the issue.

An interesting idea, especially because last month the Mayor of Tampa had to convince the Port Board to pay the $100,000.   Nevertheless, it is good if the Board is now thinking creatively – that is what we need.  Hopefully their selection of a Port Director will show the same thinking.

FrontRowTampaBay – the Young Entrepreneur View

Last week, we noted how Front Row Tampa Bay, the RNC webcast project by the Tampa Bay partnership simultaneously was and was not targeting economic development.  Someone sent along this interesting link to what some local (one soon to be not local) young professionals think of how our money was spent, commenting on this Business Journal article.  Read the comments here. They are worth it.

You may notice that the comments discuss outsourcing to companies outside the Tampa Bay area.  That should not surprise anyone when this is what the State does:

A Tennessee market research and branding firm is defining the image of Enterprise Florida Inc., the state’s economic development organization.

Rays – We Have an Answer from the Mayor of St. Pete

Last week, we noted that the time has come for the Mayor of St. Pete to show “whether he is just another decisive local politician or a leader in our region.” This week he gave us an answer – St. Pete threatened to sue Hillsborough County if they talk to the Rays.

Baseball’s future in the region took a contentious turn Thursday when the City of St. Petersburg threatened to sue any Hillsborough County officials who even discuss possible new stadium locations with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The threat came in a letter from St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe to Hillsborough County attorneys. It marks an escalation of tension between the city and Hillsborough commissioners, who in August invited the Rays to appear before them to talk about baseball.

(letter here)  Sadly, we expected nothing else.  Too bad he did not focus on the city budget:

Foster says he is still looking for ways to save the city money.

Clearly, he has not found eliminating the costs associated with the Rays and developing the land under the Trop.

List of the Week

Our list this week involves home affordability in the Top 25 metro areas.

Detroit, Atlanta and Minneapolis are the most affordable metropolitan areas and San Diego, New York and San Francisco are the least affordable.

Tampa is number 19, meaning housing is not that affordable.  This is odd because the report lists Tampa housing as fifth cheapest.  Unfortunately, Tampa has the lowest average income.

In other words, the problem is not the real estate costs or supply, it is in the lack of higher paying jobs – it is well past time that this issue, the heart of economic development, is really addressed.

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