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Roundup 5-10-2013

May 10, 2013

City Tax – About that Plan B 

We have noted over the last year of so that the Mayor of Tampa seems to have had only one idea for transit – getting the legislature to give cities the power to raise their own taxes, which he wanted to pay for transit (Though he never gave specifics).  The logic being that the 2010 Hillsborough Transportation Referendum would have passed in the City if Tampa, though it lost countywide. We have noted a number of problems with the tax – a major one being that if the City had its own tax, it would be hard to get whatever system was built out into the county, which would be necessary for any decent system.   However, on a much more basic level, there was another problem – the fact that it was very unlikely that the legislature would pas such a bill in the first place.  Well,

The proposal was a top legislative priority for Tampa, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants his own shot at passing the kind of transit tax proposal that three years ago failed county-wide while winning precincts inside the city.

“It just never saw the light of day,” Buckhorn said. “It’s unfortunate, because that really could have given us an opportunity to jump-start this process.”

Going into this year’s legislative session, the idea was supported by the Urban Partnership, which consists of the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Hialeah, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

But it never picked up a sponsor willing to file a bill. Still, Buckhorn said the city and its lobbyist saw a glimmer of hope in a House transportation subcommittee.

“We thought we had some momentum to do an amendment on the transportation bill, and we had some folks lined up to be supportive of it,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden in the midnight hours, I think someone drove a stake through its heart.”

Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was lobbied on the idea “a little bit,” including by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. He said he doesn’t know what happened to it, but noted that “the position in Tallahassee by leadership is not to raise taxes.”

Entirely predictable.  As we asked many times, what is Plan B?

While disappointed, Buckhorn said “you can absolutely count” on the city trying again next year.

Ok, well that has little chance of working, so maybe the City should try Plan C.  In any event, the article then tells us this:

In the meantime, Buckhorn has hopes for transit assistance in the next several years from Washington, D.C. For one thing, President Barack Obama’s administration already has been good to Tampa, awarding:

• $10.9 million to finish the Riverwalk.

• $105 million to help build the high-rise connector bridge from Interstate 4 to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

• $30 million to help develop Encore Tampa — a 12-block urban redevelopment project with apartments, condominiums, stores and offices — where the Central Park Village public housing complex used to stand.

That is all nice but, while a couple of the items deal with transportation, they are not transit so not really relevant.

More importantly, the article tells us the Mayor is relying of relationships with people in Washington.  That is fine.  Relationships are necessary.  However, even more important are actual plans, and the Mayor has not said one word about the actual transportation system he would like to build.  Yes, he has said “rail” but where?  How?

The decision to bet on the City Tax may have just been ill-advised or it may have been political calculation (Expend little political capital while waiting for the legislature to pass a flawed idea, and blame them every time it does not pass.) Whatever it was, it is not leadership.  Leadership is to propose an actual plan to fix problems, work out funding in the real word, and sell it to the community.  We are already behind.  We don’t have time to waste.

HART/PSTA – A Little Progress, But Just a Little

This week, the HART board acted again.  No, it did not give a comprehensive plan to fix transit in Hillsborough County.  No, it did not address its manifold funding issues.

The HART board wants Gov. Rick Scott to veto a late addition to the state’s transportation bill that includes $200,000 for further study of a merger between the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit authorities.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority voted 11-1 on Monday to ask the governor to intervene in the issue. The pressure to merge is being pushed primarily by Pinellas Sen. Jack Latvala; HART board members staunchly oppose the idea.

The new study would follow a legislatively mandated consultant’s report last year that found a merger wouldn’t lower expenses in operations or maintenance but would save $2.4 million annually by consolidating senior staff.

The HART board disputes that finding, in part because board members say top officials in a larger agency would demand higher salaries.

No surprise that HART opposed the studies.  Clearly the Board fears that any more studies might show that the origin study was valid.  Then again, they might not.  Without a study, we won’t know.

Did the HART board give any ostensible rationale for rejecting a study?

“Let’s ask the governor for a veto,” Tampa City Council and HART board member member Mike Suarez said. “This goes to the issue of local control.”

The study issue is not an issue of local control, it is an issue of which locals get to control.  The reality is that it should be an issue of having the best transit service for the lowest cost serving the Tampa Bay area, but we know that is not the goal of HART’s board.  Though there was the little bit of sensible talk:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who cast the lone dissenting vote, also said she opposes a merger. But the former state legislator said objecting to the study could more deeply embroil HART in a political battle at the state level.

“A study does not mean approval,” Murman said.

In sharp contrast to the HART board, the PSTA head put out the following:

“PSTA thanks Senator Latvala and the Florida Legislature for responding positively … and for supporting further research into how to make the best transit system for the Tampa Bay region possible,” CEO Brad Miller said in an email to The Tampa Tribune.

“The PSTA board took a position approving the previous locally-funded study of coordination/consolidation of the two agencies as a way not only to save public money, estimated at $2.4 million annually, money that could be reinvested in better regional transit service, but also a way that could lead to a more efficient, competitive regional transportation network for the Tampa Bay area.”

Amazing how the Boards can view the same idea so differently.  It also still amazes us that Hillsborough County is so scared of regionalism, especially because of this:

Transit agencies in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando, Polk and Manatee counties have agreed to work toward a unified fare collection system to improve regional connectivity.

Through phased implementation over the next four years, the new system will provide seamless and common fare media for passengers throughout the Tampa Bay region. Conversion is expected cost about $8 million.

The project will provide a much-needed upgrade of outdated fare collection systems. For example, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority fare collection system is 26 years old.  

This is a totally rational idea.  Why is the HART board so scared of a study that might reveal additional rational ideas?

Pinellas Transit Referendum – Still Alive

You may remember that some Pinellas County Commissioners were sued ostensibly because of term limit issues but actually to interfere with the Pinellas Transit Referendum.  Well, the judge dismissed the case, noting:

“This issue was clearly not the focus of Plaintiffs’; complaint, nor mentioned in their request for relief,” Schaefer wrote in his ruling. If the plaintiffs wanted to take issue with PSTA spending, he wrote, they should have named the agency in their suit.

Or maybe the opponents of the referendum should make their case against the referendum and let the voters decide, like people who believe in democracy would do.  There is no guarantee anything will pass.

Downtown Tampa – The Straz, the Library, the Tower, and the Council

This week the apartment tower proposed for the lot behind the library in downtown Tampa came up for a hearing before the City Council.  Before the hearing it was reported that some are worried about the fact that the portion of the skywalk between the Poe Garage and the Straz that connects to the Straz may be removed.   But then that concern morphed:

Specifically, the Straz Center’s chief executive officer, Judy Lisi, and advocates for the John F. Germany Public Library shared their concerns about the vast scope of the tower and all the roadwork needed around it.

That appeared to spook several members of the City Council, who said they didn’t have enough information about the project to move forward. After more than an hour of discussion, the council made no decision other than to schedule another hearing on the issue on Aug. 8.

The skywalk may be an issue, but it is nothing insurmountable.  Maybe a continuance will help people work on that issue.  Frankly, we don’t care about the continuance.

On the other hand, we do care about the substance of the debate.  The discussion showed that opposition to the project has a much more fundamental basis than the skywalk:

“The proposed scale of this project is so massive that it seems to us not only incompatible but aggressively incompatible with our riverfront and the community institutions that we have there,” said John Mullen, a board member of the Friends of the John F. Germany Public Library.

We are not talking the Sears Tower.  In reality, the project is not that big, and the footprint, which is what pedestrians will see, is definitely not that big.  As for the tower’s compatibility institutions nearby like the Straz center, please note the locations of performing arts centers in Charlotte, AtlantaDenver, Phoenix (symphony – hard to see because it behind the big building, and  San Diego – two different buildings (symphony and theatre) in the middle of downtown.  It seems that all these institutions can deal with having towers near them.  Anything else?

The Straz Center originally came up with the idea of reconfiguring Cass and Tyler streets to be safer and to give the center a bigger, better arrival plaza. But Lisi said it also originally envisioned a smaller project on the piece of city land that developers want to build on.

* * *

Yes, she said, getting the roads redone would be nice, but “we are very concerned about the scale of this project and what it is going to do that area and how it is going to really be a barrier between the Straz Center and the arts district and how it’s going affect all of our patrons.”

The only way the proposed building is going to be a barrier for people going from the Straz to the museums and Curtis Hixon Park and back is if they have to jump over it.  (They don’t)

Maybe the Times’ editorial against the building, which had nothing to do with the skywalk, can explain the argument against the building.

The argument that the tower fits with the city’s new InVision master plan for downtown is weak, too. The InVision plan has a broad enough sweep to justify almost any new development. But if anything, it warns against these sort of big-box waterfront projects. The plan also emphasizes creating harmony between the river and any surrounding development, and maintaining river views by preserving open spaces. The tower would subvert these goals in one of the few remaining open spaces on the downtown waterfront.

(We find it interesting that the Times says that the InVision plan can be used to justify almost any new development.  If that is the case, what exactly was the point of it?)

First, the proposed building is not a “big box.”  Second, InVision Tampa actually has a building in the lot in a rendering on page 58 (though that may have been wired into the report).

From the InVision Tampa report, page 58

More importantly, the Times’ position that the building to too big (it is downtown) or cuts off the water is inaccurate.  We have shown that performing arts centers are often right next to large towers.  As seen in this picture, the proposed building is not even on the water – in fact, the Straz has a parking lot to the left of the building that is on the water.  The truth is that if anything cuts off the water, it is the Straz and the Tampa Museum of Art which pinches the sight lines to the river (To be clear, we are not objecting to the Straz or the Museum.)

From the Times – click on picture for article

The rendering shows that the building is set back from the riverfront and the axis between the Tampa Museum and the Straz is unobstructed.  In fact, there is a wide sidewalk connecting the two that does not even touch the lot of the proposed building (though it does go by the Straz’s riverfront parking lot.)  There is no barrier.  What is a barrier is the barren streetscape that now exists.

Here is another angle of the proposal:

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

The location of this building is fine (though we would like to see a final plan of what they really propose to build).  The proposed scale is also fine.

As far as we can tell, the arguments about preserving the “arts district” have no merit.  The building does not interfere with the riverfront.  Moreover, the height of building is not really an issue for pedestrians.  What is an issue for pedestrians is what is on the street – what the pedestrian experiences.  If the building addresses the sidewalk properly, pedestrians will not notice the height. (You can walk down Fifth avenue in NYC and not really even notice the building heights.)  If the building ignores the sidewalk (like most of the library), it is a barrier to pedestrians.

Deal with the skywalk issue and move on.  The reality is that the status quo is not acceptable (nor are the petty politics that often get injected into issues like this one), and the concept of the project as proposed would be a vast improvement.

Downtown Tampa – Channelside

The folks that want to take over the Channelside complex had a public meeting this week.  First, we give them credit for having a public meeting.  What happened there?

After spending an undisclosed sum to acquire rights to the lease, the two companies could easily spend $9 million on renovating the site, and another $15 million to build a 150-room hotel that stretches three stories tall and wraps around much of the crescent-shaped second floor.

The hotel would have views over the complex to the water, and be a “select service” tier, similar to a Hyatt Place, though they haven’t settled on a final brand. A walking bridge would connect the hotel to the more modern parking garage across the street, and parking rates would be lower and more predictable than the current system.

They also hope to shrink the movie theater space, and transform it into a more upscale, perhaps dinner theater business, similar to Cinebistro in Hyde Park Village. With some of that space opened up, they hope to add 45,000 square feet of office space. Adding a hotel and offices, Govindaraju said, would mean more people walking the complex in the daytime.

Ok.  And:

Govindaraju and Shah want to say goodbye to the nightclubs and theme restaurants of the complex’s past. They want to bring in homegrown restaurants and the top fast-casual chains. They want to bring back the movie theater — with a dining option. They want to turn Channelside into a place folks can bring their kids to during the day and a date to at night.

The two want to have concerts, festivals and outdoor markets. They want to build excitement on the sidewalk to get people to come inside. They want to fix the garage, parking and traffic issues. They want to add office space.

That is all very nice, if not particularly specific, except for wanting public assistance.  Before anything goes forward, there needs to be more detail.

On the other hand, there was this:

Govindaraju also floated the idea of turning Channelside Drive into a one-way street, which would actually continue the one-way direction that fronts the Forum downtown, and turning Cumberland Drive into a one-way street that flows back into downtown.

Really, the City is spending all this money to two-way streets in downtown to make them pedestrian friendly and they want the City to spend money making streets one way?  What is the point?

Our bottom line on this has not changed.  We think there needs to be real detail before the Port approves anything.  Moreover, we still think just completely starting over on the lot should be considered.

Downtown Tampa – Senior Apartments

It was announced this week that there is another project for downtown Tampa.

Downtown Tampa’s apartment boom is growing even stronger, with new plans for an 80-unit apartment building for low-income seniors.

American Realty Development of Maitland hopes to break ground next month on a seven-story apartment project on North Florida Avenue, just north of Fortune Street. Named Madison Heights, it will be across from the Marion Transit Center at the north end of downtown.

Plans call for 80 one- and two-bedroom apartments above a first-floor parking area, American Realty manager Patrick Law said. Would-be residents must be 55 and older and meet income requirements based on Hillsborough County’s median household income.

Rent will run from $275 to $674 a month. His company is financing the $15 million construction cost with a mix of government tax credits and a loan from PNC Bank. He hopes to finish construction by the summer of 2014.

It will look something like this:

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

It is kind of bland, but so be it.  At least, unlike the building under construction in the Encore project right now, this building does not seem to have a surface parking lot.  On the other hand, it does not seem to have any street retail even though it is right next to the Marion Transit center.  While we realize the transit center is not really a major facility, it could use a little store.  Also, the garage opens to the sidewalk.

We do not find this project overly exciting, but it is not horrible either.  It is filler. Hopefully, some of the bigger projects that have much more press will also get built.

Trader Joes – Tampa Following from Behind

Last week there was an article in the Times regarding rumors of Trader Joe’s coming to Tampa and issues arising therefrom.

Jason Donald, of the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm, mentioned Trader Joe’s at Tuesday’s annual meeting of the Westshore Alliance Development Forum. Donald confirmed that he said, ”It’s rumored that Trader Joe’s has found a site along Dale Mabry.” He did not offer specifics, saying he is under a confidentiality agreement not to discuss details.

* * *

The current talk has Trader Joe’s going into the site that currently holds the Shapes gym on Swann Avenue near S Dale Mabry Highway. Employees there said they had not heard anything about the gym closing.

The property at 3808 W Swann Ave. is owned by Swann Avenue Properties in Brandon. Elliot Raj, who Hillsborough County records show has filed an option to buy the property, would not confirm that Trader Joe’s had chosen the building. But, he added, he knew Trader Joe’s was looking to move into the heart of South Tampa and could decide within a week on whether to open a location there.

The purchase option does not list a price or specifically name Trader Joe’s.

Robert Karshner, co-owner of Swann Avenue Properties, said he was aware of Raj’s purchase option but did not know Trader Joe’s was involved. He said he had not even heard of the store until this week.

Vince Julien, the other co-owner, said he had not been in touch with Trader Joe’s and knew nothing about the plans for the site. Julien said if he and Karshner choose to exercise the option on the property, any investor would have to lease it back to them for 20 years.

“We have no intention to do anything with Trader Joe’s,” Julien said, stressing that any speculation was just rumor.

This could all be a smokescreen or it could be part of this:

Brian Bern, a senior director with Franklin Street real estate services, said he heard through industry sources that Trader Joe’s has a particular intersection in mind but hasn’t been able to find a suitable site.

“It’s going to happen sooner than later,” he said. “There’s no other reason why they haven’t come to Tampa Bay. They just haven’t gotten the right deal.”

Maybe they have a deal or maybe they do not want to pay what people are asking. While all this goes on Trader Joes already has stores in Naples, Sarasota and Naples.  Moreover,

Trader Joe’s, the specialty grocery-store chain with a cult-like fan base, has signed a lease to locate in a retail center being built on U.S. Highway 17-92 near Winter Park Village.

* * *

The Winter Park store, set to open next year, will feature beer and wine. Florida has three Trader Joe’s so far — in Naples, Sarasota and Gainesville — and a fourth in the works near Miami.

Surprise.  Lagging again, though hopefully not for long.  Clearly they should have asked for money from the County Commission.

From the Backlot

We learned this week that:

The newly formed Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission on Monday launched a nationwide search for an industry professional to run the reorganized commission.

The executive director of the commission will be charged with attracting film, TV, still photography, digital media and new media productions to the area as well as promoting media opportunities from here.

Makes sense.  We need someone to work on this.

“Hiring the right person for this role is just the beginning,” said Rick Homans, commission chairman and president/CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. “Once hired, the executive director will work with our local production community to raise the awareness of Tampa and Hillsborough County as a destination for film and digital media productions.”

We hope so.  It was just announced that another studio will be built in Atlanta, joining a number of other major projects.   Miami already is the scene of numerous series, projects, and Spanish language media.  Orlando has Disney and other companies.  Quickly perusing a list of companies from the Florida Film Commission, listings for Tampa Bay area companies are sparse at best.  Despite some recent projects, we are way behind.

America’s Next Start-Up City?

We found this article and accompanying video about a city aspiring to be America’s next start-up city on the Atlantic website.   No, it is not the Tampa Bay area.  It is Miami.

The video is particularly interesting for a number of reasons.  First, a lot of what is said about Miami can be said about the Tampa Bay area – especially about talent moving away, about generations of people looking for things to do and not finding them there, and about urban development, though Miami’s development is in full bloom and ours is mostly in full-ish discussion.

There are also distinguishing factors – Miami is an international business center; Miami is an international style/film/art center; there is much more capital flowing about in Miami; Miami has an international draw; Miami has transit and urban neighborhoods (note the plural).  All those are key factors to getting a critical mass of multi-disciplinary talent that can interact to create successful start-ups.

The one thing that really caught our attention.  Starting at 2:24 of the video there is a comment about how Miami does not mind “disruption.”  We assume the comment is about creative disruption – the idea that present systems or ways of doing things can be abruptly changed and that new ideas are tried and create new ways of doing thing and new systems.  That is key in the arts, and it is key to innovation.  It is key to urban design, and it is key to industrial design.  It is also generally lacking in the Tampa Bay area – from the complaints about the scale of the building proposed for the lot near the Straz (see above), to the complaints that always arise every time there is a successful dining/night district – including in downtown, to the reliance on real estate, to the lack of a developed alternative music scene, to the lack of notable new architecture, and on and on.

For all the talk of changing DNA, we do not see too much of it, especially in the political culture.

Without creative disruption (which is a real change of DNA), we will never compete.

List of the Week  I 

Our first list of the week is the list of cities with the worst traffic.   Not surprisingly, LA is worst, followed by Honolulu, San Francisco, Austin, New York, Bridgeport, San Jose, Seattle, DC, and Boston. Yes, most of them have rail, and none are in Florida.

List of the Week II

Our second list of the week is  Forbes’ list of Best Cities For Jobs 2013. What makes this list very interesting is that it is created in part by the sprawl advocate from the Daily Beast articles we discussed a few weeks ago. (see here and here).

Why even try to hide it – Florida does not figure on this list nor does it figure on the list of midsize cities or small cities.

The number one city for jobs is San Francisco, followed by Nashville, Salt Lake City, Ft. Worth, Houston, Dallas (not sure why they split Dallas and Ft. Worth – maybe they just wanted more Texas entries), San Jose, Charlotte, Denver, and Austin. (All have rail, though Nashville is only commuter rail, which is ironic for the sprawl advocate.)

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