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Roundup 3-21-2014

March 21, 2014

Jackson House – The Sad Truth

This week, the Times gave us an update, which is not really much, about Jackson House, the last remnant of the Central Avenue neighborhood central to African-American history in Tampa.

The March 1 deadline to stabilize the Jackson Rooming House has come and gone, but City Hall is in no rush to bulldoze the decomposing historic landmark.

The roof still sags. The floors still slant. And safety is still a city concern, though officials say they need to talk with owner Willie Robinson Jr. and his attorney before taking their next steps.

“Ultimately, it’s Mr. Robinson’s property,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said recently. “It’s not the city’s property. He’s going to have to decide what he wants to happen.

“If he’s gotten to the point where he recognizes that it’s not salvageable, and that some of the folks that have been involved don’t have the resources to get it done, ultimately, that’s going to be his decision,” the mayor added. “If his decision is to demolish it because it’s unstable, and he wants to salvage parts of it to be incorporated into Perry Harvey Park or something like that, we would be more than happy to work with him.”

(Funny how the City waited until just after Black History Month.) Yup, nothing has happened since the City first began the process to demolish Jackson House then undermined an attempt to get the building fixed up. (See “Jackson House – the City Marks MLK Day (a Little Early)”  The Mayor still maintains that:

“I would be willing to work with anybody if they came with a plan,” Buckhorn said. “We’re in the same position that we’ve been in from day one.” 

Except working with the people with, as the article notes, the one plan that was actually put together.

We fully expect, as the City wants and has wanted for so much of Tampa’s historical built environment, the building will be demolished.  As the article points out, the building was in bad shape before this Mayor took office.  There is no denying that.  But there is also no denying that this Mayor and the one(s) before him, have done nothing of substance to buy and/or save this historical building.  And if you need proof, a Times columnist who no objective reader could say was anything but extremely well disposed towards the Mayor wrote a column about all the people who tried/are trying to save Jackson House and the one person conspicuously absent was the Mayor (and, truth be told, all mayors before him).though the column did manage to ignore the City undermining the last plan.

And one other note, for those who think that the Bro Bowl will be saved just because of the National Register of Historical Places, remember this about Jackson House:

Later, it earned a place on National Register of Historic Places and Florida’s Black Heritage Trail as a way station for entertainers that included Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Ray Charles. In the Jim Crow South, they could pack dance halls on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” but they were banned from whites-only hotels.

When Tampa wants to screw something up, it usually succeeds.

Economic Development/Built Environment – Everyone Eats

Quite routinely, the local media have fluff pieces about the Mayor of Tampa (and not just the present mayor.  Actually, it seems to be part of the DNA of the local political scene.   Hey, if everything is so great, why innovate or change?)  Usually, we ignore these articles because they do not really have any substance.  However, last week, there was one in the Tribune that was actually interesting entitled “‘Foodie Mayor’ Buckhorn says bars, eateries mean jobs, allure.”  (This did not come from nowhere.  Three days before, USA Today had a feature about the 10 best “foodie spots” in the Tampa Bay area, which the Business Journal featured with the headline “USA Today finds foodie heaven in Tampa Bay,” which was a bit of an overstatement for a list of ten restaurants.)

Setting aside that no one other than the media calls the Mayor the “foodie mayor,” there was some substance.

This is the message of Tampa’s mayor:

Tampa needs jobs.

It needs young people to stay in Tampa.

Young people need jobs and cool places to go.

Restaurants and bars and food businesses can accomplish all of that.

Buckhorn is using the city’s flourishing food culture as a tool to keep the best and brightest from jumping to bigger, trendier cities.

We’ll let the last part of that slide because it is not clear that is actually happening (and a number of the areas that people leave for are not bigger, they just have better amenities and opportunities.)  As for the other elements, we agree.  And the Mayor is doing some things to move in that direction. (Although we are not sure any of them address the issues raised in a recent Times article on youth employment rates and how badly the Tampa Bay area has done.)

We also agree with the following for the most part – except for the “hip” thing (and not every young professional or innovator is a hipster, some like to enjoy good food but are not so cool on skinny jeans):

“In order to keep them here, you need to have a city, especially in the urban core, that’s hip, that’s cool, that’s diverse, that celebrates diversity,” Buckhorn says. “A critical component of that is the social lubricant, if you will. Bars and restaurants. If you do that well, you become, at least in their eyes, a much hipper, cooler, more attractive city to be in. So at the macro level, it’s all about keeping and bringing talent here.”

Yes, a city.  We’ll get back to that. So what is being done?

Q: I know you say you streamlined the permitting process, but restaurants and bars still complain about the red tape they have to endure, especially construction permitting. Is there a kind of permitting you can do that would streamline the process for food businesses to accelerate the growth and the hipness you have?

Answer: Here’s the problem with some of that. The best locations for a lot of these restaurants, particularly these up-and-coming restaurants, are in locations that historically have not been restaurants.

Q: Like Rooster & the Till? That was a medical center before it was empty for a long time.

Answer: Yeah. There are some land-use constraints. There are zoning codes that they bump up against that we can’t necessarily resolve. They get frustrated because they want to do great things, but they might be on a road where DOT has jurisdiction. Or they don’t have enough parking.

And there was this about food trucks, which are probably the most overrated aspect of food culture:

So I came home and said we needed to figure this out. Taco Bus was probably the only true food truck we had at the time. And every code on our books at the time prohibited that from happening. In the beginning, I said, “I don’t care how you do it, get it done. Find a way to get it done.” Even if we have to — and we had to at the beginning — post the fire watch out there, because most of the trucks didn’t have exhaust hoods. They were clearly in violation of every code in the world, but we found a way around it. As a result of it, they all have hoods now. This was in the infancy of it.

We changed some parking regulations about their ability to park and serve. We just moved mountains to get it done. It was easier because in a strong-mayor form of government, I can do that. But it turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done and spawned a whole industry of food trucks.

(So, it is apparently ok for the City to bend or break the rules for something the Mayor wants, which apparently is easy under the “strong mayor” government.  What does that say about Jackson House or Bro Bowl?)

Even though the article had an interview with the Mayor from an establishment in Seminole Heights, the article devolves into much on the Mayor’s obsession with bringing everything downtown. (Note, of the 10 restaurants in the USA Today list, one is arguably “in” downtown Tampa, and one has a secondary location in downtown but the main location is elsewhere – basically Seminole Heights.)

So what is wrong with all this? For the most part, nothing as far as it goes (except as noted).  But it does not go far enough.  The real problem was in evidence on a recent visit to a restaurant in Seminole Heights which was packed with a long wait.  If you are not going to wait, where do you go?  This particular restaurant was surrounded by boarded up buildings and used car dealerships.  There was the dollar store, but that is not much for dining.  In sum, there were very limited choices even though the area is ripe for renewal and there is clearly a market in Seminole Heights.

The obsession with downtown is all well and good, but there are other neighborhoods in the City. (Admittedly, in an ad hoc way, the City sometimes does help in those areas, but where is the comprehensive plan, the incessant marketing, etc., given to downtown.)  There are many unused or underused buildings.  There are poor projects being allowed in many of the neighborhoods. And despite some NIMBYs complaining about parking, we are pretty sure that the people of Seminole Heights would rather have a bustling restaurant scene than be overwhelmed by used car dealerships and boarded up buildings.

In the article, the Mayor keeps mentioning Cigar City and how he would love to see them downtown.  That’s fine, but Cigar City started in Westshore  – where the Mayor has shown no interest in decent design and planning – and has a restaurant/gastropub in Northdale, where apparently people eat as well.  This all shows once again that every neighborhood counts, so stop obsessing about only downtown, which, by the way, is not the only riverfront property in Tampa either – how about working on the water tower in Seminole Heights and the land around there or is that too far north for the City government to care?

And why is the Mayor changing the rules for food trucks and isolated places, but ignoring fixing the rule in the places where people are already going?  Is it really going to harm “food” culture downtown if Seminole Heights actually gets really fixed up and booms or will promoting those areas energetically create a real critical mass that will spread to other neighborhoods, including downtown?  (It should be acknowledged that bohemian type clusters often originate in areas other than downtowns.)

We understand that the Mayor is not starting new businesses (which is also why he should not take credit for starting new businesses) but, as he said, he can make things easier.  He can find city lots that can be used for parking.  He can work to develop areas outside of InVision Tampa.  That will only help develop the area covered by InVision Tampa.

Real cities, the kinds to which the Mayor referred, take advantage of burgeoning scenes, no matter the neighborhood.  They do not just push everything into a narrow area, just like they do not just focus on one or two industries.  That is how they attract and retain young (and other) talent that may like to be downtown but may not like to be only downtown all the time.  And it helps to retain that talent after they have kids and do not want to live downtown in apartments anymore.

And then there is transportation . . .

We will not succeed in becoming a true destination for talent by having a small area of walkable, urban development surrounded by a sea of sprawl-style development.  Like we said, there is much that the Mayor said that is good – especially if applied city-wide, which it is not.  As he has also said (though we paraphrase) as goes one neighborhood, so goes the City.

Transportation – Gateway Express, Greenlight Pinellas, and Planning

There was some bizarre news from Pinellas this week that shows just how bad local planning really is.

A month ago, when Gov. Rick Scott announced he would fast-track an expressway linking Pinellas’ two major corridors, U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, he seemed to offer a well-timed gift to a region he’s aiming to win over as he seeks re-election.

But he also dropped a ton of concrete on top of Pinellas’ plans for a light rail route, which will also be on the November ballot, when residents will be asked to decide whether to support a sales tax increase to pay for rail and an expansion of the bus system.

Maps of the expressway and the rail line show that the two proposals — both years away from construction — come into conflict at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, where the Florida Department of Transportation’s plans for a new road could choke off rail passengers’ access to the airport.

* **

Drawn up in 2012, plans for a light rail route from St. Petersburg to Clearwater show it making its way to the Gateway area, then traveling along the west side of Roosevelt Boulevard. Once there, it would stop at a station near the airport, around which planners envisioned hotels and shops would open to serve business travelers and tourists.

But FDOT plans for the expressway add a serious wrinkle.

It addition to building an elevated expressway connecting U.S. 19 and I-275, which would be constructed on top of 118th Avenue N, the FDOT is also planning to build an expressway from 118th Avenue to the Bayside Bridge. The road would run along Roosevelt adjacent to the light rail route. As designed, it would stand between the proposed train station and the airport.

So, essentially, the road would cut off any potential rail from either the airport or from development on the other side of the road.  How could that happen?

Scott’s sudden decision to accelerate the expressway’s construction appears to have caught both FDOT and Pinellas transit officials off guard. At a meeting on Thursday, members of the two agencies said they had only recently realized that the two projects overlap near the airport, a problem they hadn’t anticipated because the expressway seemed like a far-off idea that might materialize decades from now, if at all.

“This was not on the radar screen of the county. It was a very long-term plan,” said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller. “But the whole world changed about a month ago because now it’s a real project.”

Odd, planning is supposed to deal with what is going to happen in the future.  It should take into account proposed project, not just those that are funded.  It would be good if PSTA and FDOT actually talked to each other regularly.  And their discussions should not just deal with what is funded (and Gateway Express is not even funded, yet.)

Thankfully, there are potential workarounds:

PSTA officials have devised several possible alternatives, one of which includes building an underpass that would run beneath Roosevelt, allowing visitors to take a shuttle from their hotels to the airport.

Another idea is to move the rail route to the east side of Roosevelt so that it could still ferry passengers directly to the airport. But this proposal comes with a major downside for economic redevelopment — there’s little room on the east side for hotels and shops.

While the Tea Party will probably rant and rave about how this shows PSTA cannot be trusted (of course, they would do that regardless), we will not, namely because it shows no such thing.  (And exposing the problems created by a previous failure to plan is a reason to do more planning, not less.  Not to mention the fact that this issue was caught before anything was built.)  There is blame to go around (why didn’t FDOT consult with PSTA regarding any plans since they have been out there for a while?)

Regardless, this is a teaching moment.  Hillsborough should learn from this episode and make sure any plans it creates actually plan for real eventualities and work in coordination with other planning infrastructure.  (Of course, you have to come up with ideas before you can check whether they interfere with other plans.)

Channelside – Really, It Never Ends

This week there was a new entry, sort of, in the Channelside saga.

Benjamin Mallah Sr. said he’s willing to pay $7.5 million — the highest offer made public so far — for the dilapidated downtown mall.

The president and CEO of Equity Management Partners Inc. of Largo declared his interest in buying the mortgage to the Channelside building during Tuesday’s meeting of the Tampa Port Authority governing board.

“Our company specializes in taking distressed assets and getting them back to what they should be,” Mallah said.

Mallah made his pitch knowing full well that there’s no process right now for anyone to actually buy Channelside.

Well, we are not going to recap all the comings and goings, but it is interesting that there is another potential bidder raising the price.  We really have no opinion about this possible bidder.  We still think we would be better off if the Port bought it back and then started over, completely.

It really is quite the mess and goes to show how one bad decision can grow into a complete cluster that stretches on for years (see Veterans Expressway and Pasco Toll Road).

Harbour Island – Something Else

A few weeks ago, we had a rendering of a possible apartment building planned for Harbour Island. (see “Downtown Tampa – Goings On” )  Now, there is news of a possible apartment building a few blocks west of that.

Emails from city of Tampa planning officials show a developer is proposing a new building on land just west of The Plaza Harbour Island condo tower. The project, at 402 Knights Run Ave., would include an overhead walkway over Harbour Place Drive that would link the new building to an existing parking garage.

The city emails refer to the developer as Related Development, but that could be a reference to Miami-based condo and apartment developer Related Group, which is copied on some of the emails.

* * *

A Related Group executive copied on the emails, Arturo Pena, declined to comment when reached by the Tribune this week. And Steve Wigh, a vice president of the island’s master homeowners group, the Harbour Island Community Services Association, declined to comment, other than saying Related Group made a presentation to HICSA this week about a proposed multifamily development.

In another clue, a newsletter published by another homeowners group, the ParkCrest Harbour Island Condominium Association, goes into more detail and tells its readers that a developer is planning an apartment tower on the land with more than 300 units. The owner will make the units “condo-ready,” giving it the option of converting them to condominium units in the future, the newsletter says.

Related are the same people who brought the less than impressive Pierhouse complex in the Channel District.  Thankfully, the lot in question is not very big, so 300 units would have to at least be a mildly urban project.

We are all for developing Harbour Island more in lines with the original plan, which other than the north end of the island, is nothing like the present development.  We shall just have to see what, if anything, actually comes of it.

Trader Joes – Opening

This week, Trader Joes in south Tampa is opening.  That is good.  We like Trader Joes.  The location is not necessarily optimal – nor is the building, but so be it (it makes us think they are leaving room for other locations).  Among all the hype in the local media, the standard line is embodied by the Times column entitled “Pass the Two Buck Chuck — we have arrived.”

You can read the column (and all the other coverage) for yourself.  All we have to say about Trader Joes showing we “made it” is that Fresno already has Trader Joes, as does Lincoln (NE), Buffalo, Des Moines, Dayton, and a large number of other places. (for locations, see here )  It is good to have Trader Joes, but at this point, it is not a sign you have “made it” – it is a sign that you are not lagging woefully behind your contemporaries.  (That is reality – not all the hype about super special demographics and the like, unless they are telling us that south Tampa is finally equivalent to the finest neighborhoods in Fresno.)

We are happy Trader Joes is here (and we will go there when the grand opening hype dies down and the traffic will not be a mess), but the opening just means we made average.

MacDill Airfest

Don’t forget Airfest this weekend.  You can get info here.

List of the Week

Our list of the week is livability.com’s Top 10 Best Downtowns 2014. The methodology can be found here.  To be honest, it is an unorthodox list, but you can read about that.

The best downtown is Ft. Worth, followed by Providence, Indianapolis, Provo, Alexandria (VA), Frederick (MD), Ft. Lauderdale, Bellingham (WA), Eugene (OR), and Birmingham.

One Comment leave one →
  1. joyrandels permalink
    March 21, 2014 6:38 AM

    I find it a little off base when remarks are made that restaurant jobs and an interesting place to eat will keep the best and brightest in Tampa. Cities around the world have great culinary jobs and plenty of amazing foodie restaurants. If we want to keep and attract the best and brightest we are going to have to do better than that. We need to create a stable economy rather than one based on tourism, retirement and back office call center jobs. We must improve our education system, keep the fast growing tech startups here, fix the regional and local transportation problem and increase urban density. Cities that are thriving in the new economy have plenty of great foodies restaurants and they also have urban density and high wage jobs which allow people to eat in those restaurants. New York, San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Austin, Minneapolis, Atlanta, etc. all have great food scenes, they also have urban density, open minded government and high wages.

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