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Roundup 8-29-2014

August 29, 2014

Transportation – More Muddle

There was an article in the Times regarding a report commissioned by Hillsborough County:

A study commissioned by Hillsborough County government cautions that improvements are needed in public bus service before the community could compete for light rail grants under new federal criteria.

The recent study dismayed advocates of a plan to put a tax-for-transportation referendum on an upcoming ballot, perhaps in 2016. But county staff cautioned the report is more of a checkup than an indictment, and that a more comprehensive study is needed once a specific transportation plan is developed.

Hmm.  What else?

The Hillsborough County Transit Options Assessment was completed by consulting firm AECOM in May, but some local officials only recently were made aware of it before a meeting unveiling new strategies for a countywide transportation plan.

The assessment, which summarized previous studies over the past couple decades and included data from a range of sources, surfaced during a meeting announcing a plan to elicit feedback from the public on a list of hundreds of projects including light rail that could be helped by voter approval of a 1-cent sales tax.

The report calls for developing enhanced or rapid bus options before delving into light rail.

“Hillsborough County should approach making transit investments cautiously and prudently,” the report states. “There is significant room for ridership growth in the HART service area before a major investment in (light rail transit) would be viable.”

The report argues that “only smaller scale transit investments seem to make economic sense” in light of new criteria adopted by the Federal Transit Administration — part of the U.S. Department of Transportation — for evaluating applications for funds.

Interesting.  So what did the report actually say? (As far as we can tell, you can find it here)

First, the problem:

Travel demand in the Tampa Bay region has been growing, and is forecast to continue to grow. The rising roadway congestion will cause longer travel times, reduced reliability of arriving at destinations as planned, higher operating costs, and reduced competiveness of the region when compared to other regions investing in integrated multimodal transportation systems.

(pdf pg 22) So the roads are clogged and getting more clogged and the situation harms competitiveness.  What does it recommend?

Recommendations:

There is significant room for ridership growth in the area before a major investment in light rail transit would be viable. Hillsborough County should undertake steps to build patronage on the current bus transit system and develop a long-term transit and land use strategy that will support fixed-guideway transit, and that could allow a project to qualify for federal funds. Specific recommendations include:

-Continue investing in improvements to existing bus services, such as expansion of the MetroRapid enhanced bus system, which will help to increase transit use in key corridors. A full bus rapid transit option in some corridors might qualify for FTA funding once the projected ridership is higher and investment costs are lower.

-Develop a long-term transit/land-use plan that identifies travel corridors that could be developed to contain high capacity transit, and adopt specific land use policies that encourage transit-supportive development in these corridors.

-Include in the transit/land use plan a dedicated local funding source for transit investments, which will demonstrate a commitment to fund fixed-guideway transit

-Invest in complete streets and other infrastructure that can create more walkable, transit supportive development in these key corridors, including Downtown circulator .

-Continue dialogue with CSX to determine if commuter rail options are operationally feasible and cost effective in their rights-of-way

(pdf pg 22)  First, what makes sense: don’t shortchange the bus system anymore, change how development is done, and show real commitment to a new way of doing things.  We have no problem with that.

Regarding viability, the report details the transit studies done in Hillsborough County since 1993, starting on pg 23.  In all, it lists eight studies, most involving real transit.  What is so interesting is that since 1993 the area has basically failed, with very few exceptions, to do anything about preparing itself and the built environment for transit.  20 years wasted while other areas changed, adopted transit, thrived, and developed.  And, questionably, the report does not tell us is in what state of readiness those areas (Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Diego, etc.) were when they started their transit push.  Without that, the viability discussion of the report is incomplete.

Having said that, Tampa is lucky because due to a quirk of geography (definitely not any planning) the core (from the airport to downtown, etc.) is relatively compact (see “Tampa/Pasco – It’s So Fluffy”).  Despite the fact that poor planning and settling has left this area not very walkable, it has the opportunity for rapid transformation if it had proper transit with a core system and proper feeders and proper planning. And given the underuse of so much of that land (and we do not mean houses in the corridor, though we do mean a lot of the other buildings and empty lots), fill in development should follow relatively quickly. In other words, even with all the settling and complacency, proper transit and development can still be done.

Now, it might be helpful to look at the report (the full AECOM pdf, not just the May section) in more depth.

— BRT

It is hard to argue that Hillsborough County needs to expand bus service from the pathetically low service levels provided by HART.  (And note: it is hard to have ridership if you don’t have buses for people to ride, which is another problem with the report’s reliance on bus ridership numbers.)

The report also keeps pointing to BRT as a middle step to rail (if not a final goal). This is how it describes BRT:

BRT is a viable technology alternative and should be a considered option. It is significantly lower in cost than LRT and has greater flexibility in terms of developing an operating plan that grows with the market. It can be implemented faster and sooner and provides the opportunity to provide quality curb to curb connections by providing one-seat trips by circulating on local streets to collect or distribute passengers. The shorter vehicle life, 12 versus 25-40 years provides the opportunity to update propulsion technology, amenities and features more frequently. BRTs land use impact is not as proven as LRT, but early results look promising as seen in Cleveland.

(pdf pg 35)

So what does this say, really?  It says that BRT is cheaper than LRT (which is true in many cases, though not all, which can be seen from the charts on pg 12 which gives a cost range in millions of dollars for BRT of $30-$168 and Light rail of $48.3-$436.2. Those numbers are drawn from charts on pg 9 (light rail) and pg 7 (BRT).  Those charts have some issues.  First, the light rail chart does not mention that the Pittsburgh light rail number, which is at the very high-end, involved tunneling under a river, which is quite expensive.

If you take the Pittburgh outlier off the list, the LRT average is $66.95 while the BRT is $52.6, even if you include the Eugene and Grand Rapids – which is not really true BRT because it just closes lanes in rush hour  – numbers which are likely to have no bearing on the cost of going through a decently populated area.  Once that is done (and even before, really) there is a decent amount of overlap in the cost range that is not explained.  Pg 9 gives a list of four cities where the light rail cost was under the high-end of BRT (Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and San Diego.)  So light rail is not necessarily more expensive right off the bat.  The TED group needs to get details – and AECOM should have provided them.

The report also tells us that BRT is not really fixed – it can drive around and be moved.  This gives it far less certainty, which generally harms economic development purposes because uncertainty makes people not want to invest as much in development nearby.  Moreover, the report tells us that the economic development prospects for BRT are unknown.  Yes, Cleveland worked, but that is one city with specific circumstances.  Moreover, the Cleveland BRT is part of s a system that includes rail relatively nearby, which is not the scenario AECOM is discussing. (For more see “Transportation – Inadvertent Truths” )

Finally, the report lists the short useful life of the buses involved as a positive and does not seem to account for the cost of replacing buses two or three times more often than rail in either operating or capital costs or the per mile building costs.  Without that, it is not possible to make a real comparison of the actual costs.

It seems odd to choose something that is not truly proven as a stand-alone idea and requires constant, major expenditures.  It is even odder to choose a system with significant start-up and operating costs as a stepping stone to another system with similar costs.  Why not just go to the proven system in the first place?

There is a place for BRT as part of a system, but it is not at the core.

— Managed Lanes

The report also discusses using buses in managed lanes giving is an apparent thumbs up:

The prospect of a network of managed lanes within the Tampa Bay region provides an extremely attractive opportunity to provide high quality, higher speed Rapid Bus or Enhanced Bus on managed lane services to address regional travel and longer distance commuting markets. This strategy has the unique ability to provide the premium service attractive to choice travelers while still sharing the infrastructure and alignment right away cost with toll paying travelers using the managed Lane. Even this strategy would require far stronger commitments to feeder/distributors services, carefully sited park-and-ride facilities, and perhaps transit stations and transit exclusive entrance/exit ramps necessary to provide quality curb to curb service. Such a network could be implemented far faster, at much lower cost for public transportation, and provide far greater flexibility for serving the dispersed activity patterns in the Tampa Bay region.

(pdf pg 49) Except:

If managed lanes are implemented with enhanced express bus services and if additional HART Metro Rapid or BRT corridors are implemented, new guideway alignments would need to be evaluated in the context of these sometimes competing service and facility investments. This type of analysis can only be carried out with more detailed planning and modeling efforts.

(pdf pg 49) If more than just express buses use the highway, it would require all sorts of highway work, and unknown costs.  So essentially, while it is a great idea, they have no idea about it at all.

As we have said before, the idea of express buses in managed lanes is interesting for long distance routes (say Pasco or Hernando or Plant City to downtown).  Though, there are hidden costs, and it has to work with the whole system.

— Land Use

The report then goes on to look at land use, as an element of the Federal funding criteria (which is apparently completely different than the section which is referred to in the Times article):

 Land Use Impact

The ability of the proposed projects to influence land-use is a significant consideration in the FTA New Starts project evaluation process. While the cursory review makes it difficult to assess the land use influencing potential of various options, some observations can be made. The West Corridor alignment from  downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport, while in a capacity constrained corridor where new capacity could enhance development potential, is currently presumed to operate within the I-275 alignment. This location has limited stations and those stations are distant from attractive developable land. This alignment serves extremely limited residential areas and limits access to the stations to cars and feeder buses. The median of the I-275 freeway is not a pedestrian friendly realm. Station area space would be partially consumed by parking and/or bus transfer facilities in order to enable passengers to access this alignment. Consequently, the I-275 alignment options will not encourage dense, mixed-use transit oriented development necessary to build ridership and alter travel patterns in the region.

The Northeast Corridor traverses more real estate and has more areas where transit service would be accessible to adjacent land. However, unlike the West Corridor there is no obvious evidence of market potential for incurring the risks associated with redevelopment.

In both corridors the land-use potential will be influenced by the actual alignment decisions and policy and planning initiatives carried out to complement a guideway investment. More study is needed to find the alignment that best serves local travel markets and attracts transit oriented development.

(pdf pg 48)

In other words, this is just a general discussion.  The real issue is where exactly the planned route would be and whether the City/County would actually push to maximize development along the way.  This has always been a concern for a City and area that loves tis sprawl and loves to settle.  Clearly, if the route is bad and the City settles in development, the route would not function well.

The real issue is that it is not clear what the exact route would be and the City and County have sat on their hands and never really pushed for proper development along the potential routes.  There is a cost to all that – maybe lack of Federal funds and inability to build proper transit and compete.  On the other hand, the article pretty much ignores this aspect.

Then there is final recommendation of the report:

Hillsborough County should also look at adopting plans and policies that will advance land uses that will support transit use. This can start with an overall countywide or regional transportation and land use plan that will identify the major travel corridors and trip generators in the region. Once these corridors are identified, Hillsborough County can focus infrastructure investments (highways, complete streets and transit) to support growth in these corridors. Finally, and more importantly, the County can focus transit and transit supportive development within these corridors.

(pdf pg 49 )

In other words, if this area wants transit is should have proper planning and a commitment to actually have transit and urban development.  Whether that requires doing it by building bus service then building rail or doing it simultaneously can be debated (the report says go buses first, though we disagree), but what cannot be debated is that how this area has been built and all the settling that has occurred cannot continue – either for transit or to be competitive for real economic development.  It has failed, and it will fail to keep pace with other areas.

— The DMU Option

The report then tells us this (see here for more background on DMU):

Discussions with CSX are currently underway to determine if the DMU options are operationally feasible and cost effective once all costs and ridership estimates are known. This is extremely important to any serious consideration of rail transit in the region.

(pdf pg 49) Right, because all costs and ridership estimates for 2014 are not known, only HART’s 2010 ideas.  And there has been no real discussion of technology or real routes.  Basically, the report tells us that it is not a definitive statement.

The DMU discussion has been going on for 20 years.  And it may be much more cost effective, lower rail costs even further into the BRT level (but with greater capacity and less interference with other traffic.)  However, right now, we don’t know.

— The Reaction

So what was the reaction reported in the article?

“What we wanted was an honest assessment, an independent assessment of where we stand in terms of our preparedness and our ability to embark on all kinds of transit solutions,” Merrill said. “You want to know, what is your health today in terms of transit. … We needed to know the answer, and the answer is not negative.”

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of the most fervent mass transit supporters, said the report is correct in its analysis but only one piece of a larger picture.

“Because of our very limited bus system and lack of an established track record in regard to extensive use of transit by all of our citizens, it would be challenging to just stand up a system tomorrow,” Sharpe said.

“To state that we wouldn’t be competitive is, I think, a stretch. But, at the same time, it does point out some very obvious shortcomings that we’ve got to address as we move forward.”

Indeed.  It does not say we cannot get there – it really says we are way behind our competitors and have work to do, which is basically pointing out the obvious:  HART/the County has neglected transit; the County/City planning has been horrible; infrastructure investment has been poor.

In essence, there has been no real policy to make this are anything other than a sprawling, car-necessary mess (except to a small degree downtown Tampa, but even around downtown there is too much settling).  Despite that policy, the market has in the last decade or so started to address the desire of many people for something more and government has sort of tagged along.  However, our problems have been obvious for decades and have not been addressed, except in a very piecemeal fashion.  Now there is an attempt to do so, no matter how muddled, which is something.  But there is a long way to go.

One of the problems is that, primarily due to lack of political will, there is still no plan, just ideas.  The report just points out some of the predictable results of the bad policy.  What should be done about it is just the author’s opinion – like the 8 previous reports the author lists.

Another problem is that the long history of complacency may lead us to be unable to get funding for projects we need to stay competitive.  Once again, it should be pointed out that there is a cumulative effect of poor decisions and settling and that is to put us ever further behind the competition, even as we try to move forward.

This can be fixed.  As we said, geography favors fixing it.  Hillsborough County/Tampa can have a proper transportation system – but it requires more of a commitment than just having some meetings or cutting a few ribbons.  It is more than cheerleading.  It requires a change in how things are done in the City and the County and how the area is built. It requires the TED group to bear down and make the necessary decision.  It requires a real change in mentality – especially among elected officials – that involved having political will, follow-through, and a real plan – and no subsidies to Estuary/Bass Pro Shops-like projects.

In other words, it requires a real change in our DNA.

Crew Art – How to Govern

Last week, the City Council approved funding for the Mayor’s plan to scrub a portion of the sea wall downtown of crew art to add colored lights.

The City Council on Thursday night voted to allow a clean scrubbing for a 650-foot stretch of riverfront seawall now painted over with about two dozen rowing team logos, a half-dozen roughed-in Greek fraternity names and a couple of four-letter words.

The city will pay $40,000 for the project, with another $40,000 coming from the nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants the wall cleaned because the city plans to install interactive underwater lights — they will change color as people walk by — along the Riverwalk as part of the Lights On Tampa 2015 public art program.

As we said previously, it may be ok to remove this section of the crew art if there are clearly delineated areas where the City would not seek to remove the crew art now and in the future.  Of course, from the reporting, we did not see any steps in that direction. (Not that we really expected any.) Of course, the Mayor professed that he does not want to get rid of the remaining crew art:

“There’s a perception out there that we’re going to pressure-wash the entire both banks of the river, which we’re not,” Buckhorn said before the vote. “No desire to do it.”

But the supporters of the administration proposal seemed to have different ideas:

On the other side, supporters of the proposal included a major downtown developer, the building manager of a downtown office tower, officers of the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership and the president of the Stewards Foundation, which coordinates visits from visiting college rowing teams. Stewards president Tom Feaster said it’s much more important that the public get a chance to see the grace and discipline of the sport of rowing up close, like from the vantage point of the Riverwalk, than to see the rowing team logos on that one section of seawall.

One project supporter said the seawall paintings should be considered vandalism that would destroy the waterfront as a destination if allowed to remain.

“Crew art and graffiti don’t belong on our new front door, our new beautiful Riverwalk,” said Troy Manthey, owner of Yacht Starship Dining Cruises in Channelside. “No one should be allowed to freely paint and deface public and private property.”

Neither position sounds like it favors crew art (especially the second).  In any event, don’t be surprised if the City decides to remove more crew art in the future.

There was also one other thing in the coverage that was really telling about the administration’s governing philosophy that appeared on the Times website but was later edited away (luckily, we saved the original):

Buckhorn said he’s a fan of the rowing team graffiti in general, but the seawall that will be next to the Riverwalk has some painting with no aesthetic value.

* * *

The council’s role, he said, is not to determine what’s appropriate, but to decide whether to allocate the city’s half of the funding for the power-washing. In addition, the council is scheduled to vote on giving the Friends of the Riverwalk’s contractor access to the seawall.

(originally in the article at this url)

First, it is not a direct quote, but it is clearly attributed to the Mayor.  Assuming it is accurate, it is odd. (and slightly ironic for a former City Council member.)  How is the Council supposed to decide whether to allocate taxpayer dollars unless it determines what is “appropriate?”  Does the Council exist just to rubber stamp proposals? (It does that often enough, anyway) Is it only the Mayor that decides what is “appropriate”?

It’s a funny way to run a government.

Economy – A Look at Housing

Once again, let’s check in on the economy through the housing market.

Home-price appreciation in the Tampa Bay area is slowing — good news for buyers, less so for the many Florida homeowners still seeking relief from underwater mortgages. Tampa Bay’s median single-family home price grew just 1.3 percent in the second quarter from a year ago, making the metro market one of the slower to appreciate among the 25 largest metros in the country. In contrast, Orlando market prices rose 13 percent in the quarter, followed by Miami-Fort Lauderdale at 7.6 percent. Nationwide, single-family housing prices grew 4.4 percent in the second quarter from a year ago, the slowest annual pace since 2012, according to the National Association of Realtors. The association found that median prices for existing single-family homes grew year-over-year in 122 out of 173 metropolitan areas it tracked, while prices declined in 47 metro areas. Only 19 areas showed double-digit year-over-year price increases, a substantial drop from the 37 cities that showed such increases in the first quarter.

In other words, while there is some improvement, the Tampa Bay area is lagging in the state and as a large metro area.

In the Tampa Bay market, 3,517 single-family home sales closed in July, a 0.5 percent decline over July 2013, Florida Realtors reports. The good news is that the median sale price for a single-family home is up 1.9 percent to $168,110.

Not really boom times, though there are a lot of apartments going up (we are not sure how we compare to other areas).

Downtown – Is an Office Building Coming?

There was news this week that there may actually be an office building built downtown sometime.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s vision for the Channel District is coming into focus, and it includes bringing in hundreds of white-collar workers along with tourists and sports fans.

The latest piece of his plan is a 202,000-square-foot office building that Vinik’s companies propose to build north of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

And a rezoning application filed last week suggests a tenant for that building could be Syniverse, a fast-growing high-tech firm now based in New Tampa.

* * *

Vinik’s proposed office building would go up on land he owns at the northeast corner of S Morgan Street and Channelside Drive.

Plans call for 195,000 square feet of offices, 4,000 square feet of restaurant space and 3,000 square feet of retail. The rezoning seeks approval for a building up to 160 feet tall. Sketches on file with the city variously show an 8- to 10-story structure.

The project site is about eight-tenths of an acre and is currently used as a parking lot. Tampa’s development code requires the building to have 201 parking spaces. A letter from a design firm working on the project said parking would be in a garage immediately to the northeast.

This is a rendering from the filings (and, once again, the City’s new online system is a great improvement to what used to be there. The Mayor deserves praise on that):

Rendering from the public filings

And this is the site plan:

Siteplan from the public filings

First, bringing Syniverse downtown would be great.  (Though it is unclear how the resignation of its CEO this week will affect this project.  And Syniverse denies that they are planning to move downtown.  We have no idea how likely it is that this building will get built as described.)

Second, while we are not huge fans of the preliminary rendering or height of the building, fine. The little park space is nice (it is a bit odd that the park does not really open on the plaza in front of the forum, but so be it) and also gives room for potential expansion if it is needed.  We are good with the retail, assuming it is on the street not focused on the interior of the building (which is hard to tell from the information).

The one thing that concerns us is the parking garage.  It is free standing and huge.  Moreover, the entrance and exit face the park and the building which means that frontage space will basically be dead on one side.  And depending on the Morgan Street façade of the garage (is there street retail or just a blank wall?), it may also serve to help cut off the building from the rest of downtown rather than connect it.

There is the possibility that such a large parking garage is actually intended to be parking for more than just this project.  Maybe it is intended for developments in other lots owned by the Lightning owner.  And it can be used if the project is expanded.  Unfortunately, we have no idea if that is the case.

If none of that is the case, while it would be more expensive to put the parking under the office building, that would be more in line with what downtown should be.

Unfortunately, we just do not have the information.  If the building and garage is part of a bigger, integrated project with good street interaction (like the Lightning owner’s proposed hotel nearby seems to have), then, while not optimal, fine.  However, if it just an office park building squeezed into downtown, it will be hard to get very excited (and, frankly, be anything but disappointed).

Hopefully, it is the former not the latter.  Downtown has had enough settling for poor designs over the decades. (And we already have Westshore; downtown is supposed to be different.)  It is starting to overcome that, slowly.  It would be a shame if the whole cycle just started again.

Anyway, with Syniverse’s reaction, it may not happen. We shall just have to see.  One thing is for sure – while we appreciate the Lightning owner’s moves to do projects downtown and like many aspects of what has been announced so far, the City should not settle.

Transportation – Choppiness for the Ferry

Since it was proposed, the south county ferry project has seemed destined to move quickly to realization.  Recently, some objections have arisen.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Sandy Murman made a surprise move that Turanchik said could jeopardize the ferry: She asked county staff to start looking for a different spot.

“I am very optimistic about this project … ” Murman said, “but the dam has broke and people are expressing concerns. . . . If there is a huge citizen uprising over this location, it’s not something that this commission will stomach.”

In the past few weeks, environmental advocates and Gibsonton residents have criticized the use of a nature preserve for a ferry terminal and parking lot.

Turanchik, a lawyer and former commissioner who represents the private companies that would operate the ferry, was not at the commission meeting. Any search is a waste of time, he said.

“We’ve been through painstaking analysis . . . county staff can do whatever it wants, but that’s the only site that works,” he said.

The 134-acre Schultz preserve is partly owned by a Hillsborough land-preservation program, and more than $3 million in public money has been spent buying and restoring the land. Turanchik has proposed swapping nearby land owned by his clients with the preserve land needed for the terminal.

That did not placate officials with Audubon Florida.

“It would have been a very destructive project that would have wasted millions of public dollars invested in that site,” said Charles Lee, Audubon Florida director of advocacy.

The ferry would provide commuter service for southern Hills­borough residents who work at MacDill Air Force Base and could add service linking Tampa to St. Petersburg. The project needs more than $20 million in startup funding, most of which would be covered by the county under Turanchik’s plan.

In February, commissioners approved spending $125,000 on a feasibility study. In June, the project won a $4.8 million federal grant.

You can read more about the Audubon Society’s objections here and here.

To be honest, we are not clear about the whole discussion and why it came up now.  We do not want environmental preserves harmed, but we also think that, if there was agreement on the site, it is kind of odd to change that now when nothing new has really been discovered. (While they seem hesitant to even do it when it comes to transportation, at some point the County Commission has to make a real decision.)  Given all that, it would be better if another site could be found just to avoid the problem completely.

But, regardless of what happens, it is a funny way to run a government.

Westshore – Jefferson High

For many years, it has been pretty obvious that the Jefferson High campus is an odd use of a large amount of land in the Westshore area and breaks up the ability to really develop the area. (Here is an aerial view.)  Of course, moving a high school in the middle of a city (again, since Jefferson has already moved once) is not easy to do.  Moreover, having a large government owned property is useful and should not be given up lightly.  Given all that:

When the head of the politically powerful Westshore Alliance looks at Jefferson High’s sprawling 60-acre campus, he sees the perfect spot for new retail businesses — maybe even a hotel.

Ron Rotella, executive director of the alliance, which represents hundreds of businesses and thousands of employees in the area, envisions at least a portion of the campus as the future home for apartments or townhouses, shops and more — all tied in with a transit hub the state plans to construct nearby.

Rotella, speaking at an alliance luncheon Tuesday, said he plans to make his case for a redevelopment plan before the Hillsborough County School Board on Sept. 30 and to ask permission to work with its staff.

“Jefferson is an old, one-story school,” Rotella said. “I would never suggest to them that they relocate Jefferson. That would be their decision.”

But he is hoping the school board will at least consider consolidating school buildings — including adjacent Roland Park K-8 Magnet School and Lavoy Exceptional Center for students with disabilities — into one multistory building and using the rest of the property for economic development.

“By anyone’s standard, there is a gross under-utilization of the site,” Rotella said.

We are not sure that those are the best ways to use the land, but, yes, the land is underutilized.  What did the school board say?

Hillsborough Deputy Superintendent Cathy Valdes said school district officials are open to discussion as long as the plans come at no cost to them.

“That’s a big tract of land,” she said. “It’s very valuable. We’ve told them we’ve got to operate our three schools. It can’t cost us any money.”

Valdes added that the district has been involved in the planning process for West Shore development for years.

“While we need to make sure we’re protecting the interest of the school board, schools and taxpayers, we’re always willing to talk,” she said. 

That is sensible, and we have to say having an elementary school and special needs programs in the same building as a high school strike us as a questionable proposition.  And there is the neighborhood nearby and its needs.

The reality is that we can see all sides of this discussion, and a lot depends on what is proposed for any land the school gives up (we are not sure retail and hotel make sense).

We shall see what comes of this.

— And One More Thing

And then there was this:

“We want to make West Shore more pedestrian friendly, more walkable,” Rotella said.

For a busy office, retail, hospitality district in the middle of a city and heart of a major metro area, it would be hard to make it less pedestrian friendly than it is right now (though recent developments have tried).  There are definitely other things that can make it more walkable that have nothing to do with the school.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida and the Beyond

— Rail

While this area struggles with transportation alternatives and rail, other parts of Florida are just moving along.

Preliminary work has begun for construction of a $2.5 billion express passenger train between Miami and Orlando.

In preparation for the project, 35,000 linear feet of new steel rails have been laid on the ground alongside existing freight train tracks at two sites in Palm Beach County just west of North Dixie Highway in Boca Raton.

Parking lots that for years were packed with vehicles next to the Miami-Dade County Hall building and Metrorail tracks in downtown Miami are now empty, closed for coming construction of the train’s Miami station.

The shuttered parking lots and the new steel rails mark the first physical work on the future service since the ambitious project was announced in March 2012.

All Aboard Florida, as the project is called, is expected to begin operations in two phases: first between Miami and West Palm Beach in 2016 and then between West Palm Beach and Orlando in 2017.

Of course, it is getting state support:

The project has been plagued by controversy, including debate over whether Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is secretly assisting All Aboard Florida by funding infrastructure that will benefit the project. Critics cite $214 million in state money for construction of a transportation hub at Orlando International Airport — where All Aboard Florida will have a station — as evidence to support the claim.

“That’s not true at all,” said Reininger, who said the transport hub was planned before All Aboard Florida became a reality. “Long before there was such a thing as All Aboard Florida, there was a need for a long-term vision for the expansion of the Orlando International Airport.”

Whatever.  It is getting state support, just like Tri-Rail and Sun-Rail get – though less.  The only place that does not get state support in the Tampa Bay area.  (Though, in all honesty, a good part of that is the failure of local officials to present a unified approach.  We’ll see what happens if Greenlight passes.)

It is also worth noting that Tri-Rail in South Florida is working on expansion.  We wonder what the bus ridership in Palm Beach and Broward counties was when Tri-Rail started.

And note that Texas seems to have further solidified its status as a socialist state because it apparently has no problem with rail – even in El Paso.

— Enter the Soundstage

Every now and then there is a spasm of discussion about the movie industry in this area.  Just to keep everything in perspective, we check in with Atlanta.

Atlanta developer Jim Jacoby has taken another big step toward remaking the OFS plant at Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard into a what it calls the largest movie studio campus in the Southeast.

Jacoby, chairman of Jacoby Development Inc., says his company has struck a partnership with Los Angeles-based MBS3. Its television and feature film studio is home to James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and the next three sequels to Avatar, a science-fiction blockbuster from 2009.

MBS3 will invest in new lighting and equipment and deploy large portions of its inventory to Atlanta. It will lease, manage and operate the Atlanta Media Campus. Those connections could attract major film productions to the OFS plant, which Jacoby plans to transform into Atlanta Media Campus and Studios.

* * *

Upon completion, Atlanta Media Campus will have six sound stages and production support space at the intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 in Gwinnett County. Jacoby said the plan is to film at least two films per year there, as well as television shows.

So it is not a done deal, but it is moving along. Keep that in mind when everyone talks movies.

List of the Week

This week’s list is actually from a blog.  It is munsoncity.com’s list of most affordable walkable neighborhoods.  You can see the blogger’s background here (note: he works for AECOM).  You can see the pretty elaborate methodology here.  So what did he find?

Capitol Hill, Seattle led the pack. To be honest, I was expecting something like a smaller, affordable Midwest town or something, but it the highest scoring areas were usually just outside of major downtowns. Other top areas included Cambridge and Somerville outside of Boston, and the South End in Boston; Columbia Heights, Washington, DC; The Mission District, Lower Haight, and Russian Hill, San Francisco; Midtown, Atlanta; Greenwood, Dyker Heights, Kensington, and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia, where we used to live; Lake View, Chicago; and Five Points, Denver.

Despite its low housing prices, there is nothing in Florida.

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