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Roundup 5-3-2013

May 3, 2013

Downtown Tampa – Move Slowly

As part of efforts to develop downtown Tampa and the area around it, there are often calls to change the design of various streets.  In the last few weeks, we have heard about a two of these roads – Ashley and Nebraska.

—Ashley

First, Ashley:

Ashley Drive will get on-street parking and a more pedestrian-friendly design.

The work is part of a $2.9 million contract with Ajax Paving Industries of Florida LLC, which has been hired to make a variety of pedestrian-oriented changes to Tampa’s streets.
* * *

The Ajax contract calls for adding parking spaces to Ashley between Tyler Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard — a project outlined in Buckhorn’s InVision Tampa study from last year.

Nearly 30,000 vehicles travel that stretch of Ashley every day, according to city traffic counts.

The InVision final report shows renderings of Ashley with parking spaces and a bike lane along its east side. The report describes Ashley as “a freeway ramp deep into the downtown core.”

Buckhorn said the city will add parking spaces by squeezing the existing lanes, not removing lanes.

Setting aside that InVision Tampa was a report by a consultant, not the Mayor, what is the purpose of these changes?

The two-year contract is part of Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s overall strategy to make downtown more accessible and safer for pedestrians, said Ali Glisson, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

“We look at this as an opportunity to start to slow traffic down,” Buckhorn said Friday. “There will be more of this to come.”

We are for making downtown more walkable.  We also think that not removing lanes, which had been proposed in the past, is a good thing.

On the other hand, among other things, downtown is a business district that is supposed to draw workers from all over the area.  As we have said before, InVision Tampa’s ideas have an odd proclivity for working to make it difficult to get into downtown from all areas other than South Tampa.  As evidenced by the recent postponement of a planned office building in the downtown due to lack of demand, downtown already suffers from a weakness as a regional business draw.   We doubt that making it harder to get around downtown from the interstate will help make downtown a viable location for regional business and entertainment facilities (like Channelside or a baseball stadium).

Additionally, other cities have multiple lanes and no on street parking but do not seem to inhibit the cities through which they run.  Just a few examples – and we do not consider them necessarily ideal streetscapes: Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Brickell in Miami (though it is not a huge pedestrian area, yet)  or Boylston in Boston (has parking, but is also one way – which apparently is a no-no these days)  So why can’t we do that? Could it be the lack of non-bus transit alternatives to get people around?

The point is this: yes, downtown should be more walkable.  However, there needs to be ways to get in and out of downtown from places other than South Tampa.  The general idea of walkability is good, but the execution seems misplaced.

Downtown streets are just not that intimidating (As shown by the people sitting at outside at restaurants on Ashley or crossing Ashley to get to Curtis Hixon Park.) – downtown’s lack of proper urban designs (and its multiple surface parking lots) is much more harmful.  Downtown is not just a neighborhood or South Tampa’s front yard.  If people cannot get in and out of downtown, it will lose even more to Westshore and other areas.

Nebraska

In truth, making Ashley – one of the gateways to downtown from the north (and east and west) – slower might make sense if there were good transit alternatives and good road alternatives.  For roads there is Tampa/Florida and Nebraska.  However, now the City is planning further changes to Nebraska Avenue, which has already been narrowed from four lanes to two (with a turn lane).

Between 14,000 and 16,000 cars each day travel Nebraska, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. The street is a major link between downtown and neighborhoods like V.M. Ybor and Southeast Seminole Heights.
* * *

Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to tame Nebraska, making the street more inviting to pedestrians and businesses alike.

The rebirth of Nebraska is tied to HART’s plan to begin new bus-rapid transit, known as MetroRapid, running north along the street between downtown and the Hidden River regional park-and-ride lot on Fletcher Avenue. That service, which includes new green-and-silver stations along Nebraska, starts operating in June.

City officials want people who live, work and drive along Nebraska to offer their ideas for how to make the street a better place to do all those things. They’re inviting people to a workshop at 6 p.m. tonight at the Children’s Board offices in Ybor City to brainstorm the street’s future.

The city’s planning consultants will return Thursday having turned some of those ideas into guidelines for the future rebirth of the corridor.

First, once again, Nebraska definitely could be a nicer street.  We also applaud the attempt to get input about the road from the public, though it is questionable how many people commuters will go to a meeting in Ybor City.

However, as we said, Nebraska was narrowed a few years ago (and made “bike friendly,” which was supposed to spark a renaissance.  Apparently that didn’t work.  So what are the ideas?  You can see some basics, most of which are fine, in an eight page pdf on the city website.   But then there is this, which goes to “taming” Nebraska:

Southern Brewing owner Kelly Fenstermacher said she and her husband, Brian, chose their location because of the support they thought they’d get from the gentrifying neighborhood around them.

The busy nature of Nebraska kept them from adding a street-side patio as they had planned. It’s in the back instead, away from the traffic and noise.

The DOT shrunk Nebraska from four lanes to three several years ago, but Kelly’s contribution to the discussion of what to do next includes planted medians to help calm the busy street.

“They would give it a more quaint feel.”

Trees are fine, but we have an issue with the general goal.  Some roads are not supposed to be quaint.  This is not Cedar Key or Micanopy.  This is the middle of the city, and, as the article says, Nebraska is a major connection to the north.  Some roads are necessarily major roads.  And the speed limit on Nebraska where it is one lane in each direction is 35. (see here and here)   Continually making Nebraska harder to drive on is not a solution.  Additionally, even if Metro Rapid is a success (which we hope it is) that will just lead to more buses on the road, and nothing says café dining like streams of buses.

As actually pointed out in the eight page pdf, what would make Nebraska nicer is having nicer things on Nebraska, like wider sidewalks, pedestrian friendly buildings, and better developments. (And how about not putting drainage ditches touching the sidewalk)

What is needed is economic development, real transit, and a proper code.  It is not possible to have simultaneously every road be a quiet, small town street and have a vibrant downtown, especially when you do not have real transit. Where is the traffic supposed to go?  If you choke access too much, you choke downtown.

— Conclusion

The real problem is that all this is putting the cart before the horse.  It is not a part of a well thought-out transportation system that includes real transit.  Without that, there is no way to offset changes to traffic patterns, and the changes are more likely to create more bottlenecks and congestion, which is counterproductive.

We have to remember that the goal is to build a city, not just a cluster of Mt. Doras (as nice as Mt. Dora may be).  And real cities require real transit.

Channelside – What is It?

There was a big flurry of news about a new group looking to take over the Channelside complex.

A pair of Tampa-based hotel and resort developers are now in the lead to take over Channelside Bay Plaza, and have now filed formal paperwork with the Tampa Port Authority in hopes of taking control of the long-struggling restaurant and retail site.

If approved by political leaders and financial institutions involved, Liberty Group and Convergent Capital Partners would together begin a dramatic re-organization of the government-backed complex, with renovations possibly starting this autumn.
* * *

And similar to a residential “short sale,” Govindaraju said his partnership now has a signed agreement with the bank that holds the mortgage on the property, and that deal precludes any other party from acquiring those rights. If approved by the Port of Tampa to become the new mall operators at the Port’s monthly meeting in May, Govindaraju said they could close on the deal in June and start construction by autumn.

Ok, so they want to buy at below market price and make “significant changes.”  Before anyone signs off on another plan for Channelside, what are the changes?

Shah wants to see that again. But he and his partner want people to see the complex in a new light — daylight. To that end, they’ll add workspace to the 234,520-square-foot building.

“What we’re anticipating is making it a mixed-use lifestyle center with offices, restaurants, dining and bars, entertainment and a hotel,” said Shah.

They also want to update Channelside’s look and build a pedestrian bridge to the parking garage across Channelside Drive. They also want to improve the garage entrance and exit.

No lineup of potential tenants has been revealed. Shah said he wants restaurateurs and businesses interested in coming to Channelside to start contacting him. But they envision adding fast-casual dining, “unique” retail and “first-class” entertainment.

They want to appeal to several demographics: fans attending Lightning games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Florida Aquarium visitors and the more than 900,000 cruise ship passengers who stream through the Port of Tampa annually.

But their main demographic is the “discriminating” young professionals who now live, work and play in downtown Tampa and the Channel District.

Ok, some office space and maybe a hotel, though we are not clear exactly where any of that will go.  And they want “fast-casual” dining (so a Chipotle or reasonable facsimile thereof).  And they want to appeal to many demographics – who doesn’t?  In sum, we really don’t know much. (And what is a “life-style” center anyway?  Is that the modern “festival marketplace”?)

This is all rather vague.  As made clear from the idea of getting local input, it seems there is no full plan, aside from asking for public money:

If accepted, the bidders would like the base rent they pay to the Port cut by 50 percent, permission to build a 150-room hotel, and a contribution of $1 million from the Port toward a pedestrian “Sky Bridge” that’s part of their vision for renovations.

Because we do not know what the plan is, we can’t really judge it.  However, we are not sold on what we have heard.

The truth is that the Channelside complex was built for a different time.  When it was built, there were not very many people living nearby; now there is a growing population. When it was built, people could still access the waterfront from the building; now they cannot.  When it was built, people did not have to sit behind Plexiglas to dine facing the water; now they do.

The main feature of the lot is that it is waterfront property.  The main feature of the building is that it cuts people off from the water.  Any real change to the building needs to address that or it is questionable whether it will work.

It is good that people are making proposals.  Maybe they are good, maybe they are not.  The Port should be very cautious in approving any deal.  The half steps of the past have not worked.  It might be better to just tear down the complex and start again.

Masterplanning Westshore

The Westshore Alliance has a released a proposal for redoing the “public space” in the Westshore area.

The Public Realm Master Plan calls for landscaped medians, shaded sidewalks, screens to hide parking lots and shared bus and bicycle lanes along West Shore Boulevard, between International Plaza and Kennedy Boulevard. It would narrow traffic lanes and reduce speed limits on West Shore and Boy Scout boulevards and Lois Avenue. Pedestrian bridges would connect restaurants and offices along Boy Scout with a new public park and International Plaza.

Bob McDonaugh, the city’s administrator for economic opportunity, said the plan underscores “West Shore’s coming of age.” Several residential projects and restaurants have opened or are in development stages.

“The master plan reflects some of the changes we’re seeing in the West Shore district,” he said. “It was solely a 9-to-5 operation. Now we have more residential coming in. It’s important to enhance the area’s walkability because not all of these people want to use cars.”

The plan would improve pedestrian access without taking away vehicle lanes or adding traffic congestion, Rotella said. Rather than drive a few blocks to grab lunch or run an errand, West Shore’s nearly 100,000 workers could walk or hop on a bus. Guests in the 8,000 hotel rooms could get safely to a store or restaurant without dodging speeding vehicles.

A presentation of the plan can be found here.

First, we are all for improving the urban environment of the Westshore area.  Thanks to both the developers and the City, for too long Westshore has been a suburban office park in the middle of the city.  (If they screen parking lots, they are going to hide the first floor of almost every building.)

Of course, that is the major problem with this plan.  Regardless of streetscaping, the fact remains that the buildings in the Westshore area are suburban buildings, and there is really no evidence of that changing (see here and the Container Store).  We are all for making the sidewalks shaded and wider, but that will not get people to walk if the buildings are not built for pedestrians.  That is up to the developers, and they have shown little interest so far.  And then there is this:

“We don’t want cars going 40 and 50 mph down West Shore,” he said.

Again with making it harder to get around. What would you have the cars do, 30 mph?  In our experience one thing pedestrians like even less than cars moving by at 40 mph (which is really not a big deal) is breathing the fumes from thousands of cars stuck in gridlocked traffic.  Quite frankly, if there are good sidewalks that are buffered from the street by landscaping with something for the pedestrians to do (see here)  – as opposed to little ribbons right next to the road adjacent to parking lots (see here and here) – people will walk.  Moreover, if a circulator bus is stuck in slow traffic, it will become useless for getting people to malls and restaurants for lunch.

Now for a couple specific issues.  Look at this picture, which can also be found at page 15 of the pdf (another angle is on page 17):

From the Times – click on picture for article

This is a rendering of a proposed park around the International Plaza retention pond on Boy Scout Boulevard.  While a pedestrian bridge over Boy Scout may be a good idea, we see no reason to spend money on a “park” sandwiched between a large surface parking lot and six lane road and smacked against a retention pond.  Who is going to use this “park” space, especially in the summer?

In addition, notice the large teal-ish and yellow swirls on the pavement of Boy Scout.  As shown on page 20 of the pdf, that is not just an artistic flourish for the rendering; it is actually a proposal to color the street.  We are all for better streetscaping (though we do not think it is a panacea), but painting the street is just silly. (As anyone who has observed the fake brick crosswalks painted all over Tampa become blackened by traffic over the years will know).

So how much would all this cost?

Implementing the plan would cost millions and could require buying public right of way. The “only practical source,” Rotella said, would be the creation of a tax increment financing district through the county. The TIF district would earmark a certain amount of future county property tax revenue to finance the debt issued to pay for the improvements. County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has said he supports it.

The city of Tampa recently approved an $80,000 engineering feasibility study on moving utilities and obtaining right of way needed for the West Shore plan. It also collects impact fees for district improvements.

Rotella is hopeful $10 million to $15 million in upgrades to West Shore Boulevard could start in a year and a half, but no schedule has been set.

We give them credit for trying to keep costs down and consider alternative funding.  (Though the cost would be even less if the swirly street paintings and retention park were removed.)

The bottom line is this – upgrading the streetscaping is fine.  We have no objection.  However, having nice streetscapes for people to look at as they sit in traffic trying to get to the malls and back is not making an area walkable or urban.  We find it hard to get too excited about this plan when there is no evidence that anything built in Westshore will actually be built in a walkable way.  When pedestrian friendly, urban buildings are actually built, we will get excited.  Moreover, it makes no sense to make it even harder to get around the area by slowing down traffic on most of the major arteries – on Kennedy and Westshore it can already be slow enough and the speed limit on Lois is already 35.   And we have no interest in ideas like the park and painting the street.

The only way to make Westshore truly walkable is to build the buildings in a walkable way.  Otherwise, this risks being window-dressing.

CIT – The Well is Dry

It seems that the fiscally conservative Hillsborough County Commission has basically spent all the Community Investment Tax money.

Budget director Tom Fesler told county commissioners recently that no new building projects can be undertaken using the Community Investment Tax a funding source.

Once expected to grow at a robust 6 percent a year, receipts from the voter-approved tax have increased just 1.8 percent annually over the last decade, Fesler said. He blamed the recent economic downturn for the tax’s demise.

But that’s only part of the story. Another reason the tax can’t pay for big projects is that prior county commissions borrowed heavily against the CIT for drainage, transportation and other needs requested by constituents.

Oops. So how did this happen?

But at a September 2005 meeting, Commissioner Ronda Storms pushed to spend an additional two or three years of Community Investment Tax money to pay for storm-water drainage and transportation upgrades. County officials told commissioners Storms’ proposal could be done, but the money would be borrowed against taxes collected a decade later.

Commissioners unanimously approved the proposal.

* * *

 Current County Administrator Mike Merrill, who was the debt management director in 2007, told commissioners then that the county could expect just $213 million before the tax expired in 2026, rather than the previously anticipated $480 million.

This $213 million projection for the remaining CIT proceeds was over and above the $500 million commissioners bonded for transportation spending that month.

Nevertheless, Merrill said at the time that spending the CIT money made sense. He hasn’t changed his mind, he said, despite the duration and depth of the intervening economic downturn.

* * *

Another factor in the decision to borrow all the remaining CIT was the commission’s determination not to raise taxes, said current Chairman Ken Hagan. The county was desperately trying to build infrastructure to keep up with the booming population but taxes were off limits.

“So bonding the CIT using favorable interest rates at the time was an extremely prudent thing to do,” Hagan said recently. “If we refused to raise taxes, how else are you going to meet the infrastructure needs using existing revenues?”

As Norman warned, the decision to bond out the remaining CIT revenues on the cusp of a recession puts today’s commission in hard position. The county has an $8 billion deficit in transportation and other infrastructure, according to Hagan.

* * *

At the April 10 meeting, Merrill’s staff presented commissioners with a list of possible ways to raise revenues. Most of the ideas involved tax increases or new taxes, hardly palatable options for the Republican majority, two of whose members face election in 2014.

Basically, the County Commission simply postponed facing reality so they would not have to talk about taxes.  (We are sure that putting their interest in getting reelected had nothing to do with it.)

The real question is that if we have an $8 billion dollar infrastructure deficit and no way to pay for it, why is the County Commission giving away millions in subsidies to developers for roads that do not need to be upgraded?

Innovation Stagnation

For all the talk about innovation zones near USF, it seems that everyone is getting hung up with talk. (For the fuller details, the Tribune story is here)

Everyone likes Innovation Destination in principle.

A beautiful vision for the University of South Florida area, it would clean up the ugly streets around Busch Gardens and USF, bring in new businesses and turn the area into a research and medicine-based zone that capitalizes on USF and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center’s brainpower.

But almost no one knows how to create it.

A two-year effort to plan for an innovative business zone surrounding USF has struggled to get off the ground, with too many groups pushing their visions for the project.

For example, the biggest institutions in the area, including USF and Busch Gardens, focused on beautifying the streets and attracting business; community activists concentrated on the decades-old problems of crime and joblessness. Eventually, a consultant who was hired to plan Innovation Destination was let go when the parties couldn’t agree on a vision.

None of this is surprising – especially the idea that streetscaping can cure any ill.

Look.  While we are not for odd ideas like a USF stadium replacing the dog track on Bird Street (a USF stadium should be on USF’s campus), it is clear that to really create a zone for “innovation” (whatever that means) around USF one has to deal with the less that prosperous neighborhood around USF.  Moreover, there are office parks near enough to USF to not require anyone to locate in the “innovation” zone.  You have to give them a reason to go to suitcase city.

As we noted last year:

While we have not seen any specific ideas so we can’t get into any details, we are all for revitalizing that area, but there are some major issues.

First, by revitalization, do you mean replacing or fixing up what is there?  How are you going to accumulate land and what are you going to do with what is there now?

Second, what are you going to do with the low income residents who live there now? They have to go somewhere?  Will they be able to afford a developed USF area?

The area is not empty, it is run down.  Any plan has to address these issues.

And one last thing – why was this area never planned/planned in such a bad way in the first place?

Apparently no one has answered these questions.

Why not come up with an innovative idea to fix the innovation zone and help the people in the area at the same time (and streetscaping is not innovation).  Isn’t that the kind of thing that major research institutions should do?

TIA – Back to Holguin

TIA announced, among new domestic flights, flights to Holguin, Cuba, are resuming seasonally.

Three months after the flights were suspended, Tampa International Airport announced Thursday it would host new seasonal flights to Holguin, Cuba.

Starting June 11, ABC Charters will fly once a week to the east Cuban beach town, about 500 miles from Havana, airport officials said.

The flights will run on Tuesdays between June and August, and between December and January, to cater to summer and Christmas vacationers, airport CEO Joe Lopano said.

* * *

Calling it a “very dynamic” and evolving market, Lopano said leaders in the young and rocky Cuban travel business are learning which flights offer the most lucrative business.

“Our operators, they understand the market so much better now,” Lopano said.

Not bad.  We would like flights through the whole year, but in a developing and politically charged market like Cuba, it is perfectly understandable.  Though it is notable that:

International business has proven a key factor in the airport’s growth. While the airport served 1.8 million passengers in March, a 5 percent gain since March 2012, international passengers in March soared more than 13 percent over the same time period, and 43 percent higher than March 2011, airport data show.

Excellent.  And there is this:

Revenue for the first six months in 2013 increased 4.8 percent to $4.2 million, with March revenue noticeably strong at $1.2 million greater than last year.  

Now we need more European and Latin American flights, as well as to the Pacific Coast.

Economic Development – The Germans Are Coming, At Least for a Visit

Last week it was announced that:

A team of local business recruiters spent last week calling on a variety of small- to medium-sized manufacturers in Germany, asking them to consider expanding in the Tampa Bay area.

Now, over the next 60 days, eight of those companies have agreed to come for a site visit.

* * *

Local economic development officials did not name any of the prospects, but said Monday that the companies make everything from heat-exchange equipment and radio frequency identification devices to aerospace components and cleaning equipment for the pharmaceutical industry, to water recycling and fuel filtration systems.

Some are interested in opening sales and distribution offices here. Others could explore bringing in manufacturing operations. And local officials have been working for months with a German manufacturer interested in establishing its U.S. headquarters in Hillsborough County.

It is all positive news, especially the bit about the HQ.  Hopefully it will bear fruit, which will be the true measure of success.  This is the kind of effort of which we need much more.

List of the Week I

Our first list this week is the Fast Company list of best states (and districts) for innovation.

Florida is number one, followed by Texas, Maryland, Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.  You can see why they say Florida is the best here.  It is nice to be first, but we are a little dubious.

List of the Week II

Our second list of the week seems to tie into the first.  It is nerdwallet.com’s best cities to start a business.   (Reading through the criteria, it seems that success of the business is not particularly relevant.) Atlanta is first, then Raleigh, Austin, Tulsa, OKC, Tampa, Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston, and Omaha.

List of the Week III

Our third list this week seems to contradict our first two, at least as related to us.  It is Bloomberg’s Top 12 boomtowns (we have no idea why they chose 12).

Austin is first, followed by New Orleans, Raleigh, San Antonio, Houston, DC, OKC, Nashville, Portland, Charlotte, Dallas, and San Jose.  Florida is shut out.

It is interesting that this week, Tampa (and Florida) made an appearance.  That is positive.  However, in contrast to places like Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte and Houston that show up on almost every list, we still have a long way to go.

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