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Roundup 3-20-2015

March 19, 2015

Due to unforeseen circumstances, this week’s Roundup is being posted a little early.

Downtown – The Boom – a Look Back

There was an article in the Business Journal regarding the Lightning owner’s plans (which we support) and whether they are for real (which is a bit odd, but whatever):

When developer Bob Abberger took the stage at the Tampa Downtown Partnership annual development forum, it was to answer one question: “Are you guys for real?”

As managing director of Strategic Property Partners, Abberger is on the front lines of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s billion-dollar development plans. He said after his speech that he isn’t surprised to be asked that question routinely.

“We’ll continue to get it until we go vertical,” said Abberger, who was previously the Florida managing director of Trammell Crow. “I think there’s always ultimately a question of whether the market supports the vision, and I lived that real time with Trammell Crow, trying for seven years to do an office development. And I was as close to real as real could be for Tampa, but I never got us there. Mr. Vinik will get us there.”

Given the resources available to the Lightning owner, he certainly has the best shot of getting his project built.  Of course, we assume he is not going to build it for charity and the demand has to be there.  On the other hand, at least for urbanism, we have long believed that there is pent up demand that has simply not been adequately met by developers in this area.  There have been fits and starts – usually interrupted by recessions – but there has also been too much settling.

— The Hires

Regarding the Lightning owner’s project, we are encouraged by this news:

Vinik has hired two men considered among the best in the business: “new urbanists” Jeff Speck and David Dixon are city planners at the forefront of the movement to build walkable urban spaces for people to live and work in.

Speck’s hiring leaked out last week and Dixon’s was announced on Tuesday, when the mission for both also was made public. They will create the guidelines that builders will use to fulfill Vinik’s “vision plan” of creating a vibrant and pedestrian-friendly space to unite the district and connect it to the water.

In short, they will design the ground floor of Vinik’s urban redevelopment project.

“When a developer is trying to build a vision plan, you’re still left with a lot of questions,” Speck said. “A vision plan embodies peoples’ hopes and aspirations for the project but doesn’t give you the specificity you need in terms of:

“How many lanes on every street? How wide are the lanes? Where does the parking go? How tall are the buildings? Where exactly will people sit?”

Dixon and Speck will lead a team of architectural designers, residential and retail planners, and transportation and traffic engineers who will answer those questions.

* * *

Dixon, 67, will lead the master plan team. He’s also the senior principal and urban design group leader for the urban design arm of Stantec, an international engineering firm. Dixon was named to Residential Architect magazine’s hall of fame in 2012.

Speck, 51, will serve as consulting design leader. He has his own Washington D.C. firm, Speck & Associates LLC. He’s also a vocal proponent of new urbanism — creating neighborhoods that are hospitable to pedestrians and offer a variety of employment and living options — as well as a vociferous critic of suburban sprawl and auto-dependency.

Vinik brought Speck on board after reading his book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Vinik liked the book so much he bought copies for his entire staff.

* * *

They have four months to come up with a plan.

* * *

Speck said that, taken together, the established properties and the empty lots are ripe with possibility:

“To find 40 acres of principally surface parking this close to downtown that already has anchors in place in the form of an arena, a museum, a convention center, an aquarium, a marketplace, and you still have all this empty space and the waterfront. What could have greater potential?”

The simple hiring of walkability experts is not what is encouraging (and note that Stantec is already active in this area).  Frankly, we do not think creating a walkable area is actually that complicated – it has been done all around the world and the features are quite well-known. (We would have far more walkable areas if so much had not been bulldozed for strip stores and parking lots.) We are, however, encouraged, that the Lightning owner shows every sign of wanting to do things right.  The reality is that the final product, not who creates it, will be the key to the project. In any event, what do they want to do?

In their quest to build a walkable district in downtown Tampa, the urban planning consultants Jeff Vinik has hired recognize they’re up against a street grid that makes the existing neighborhood a scary place for pedestrians.

“It’s dangerous because the streets look and feel like they’re designed for going high speeds, because they are designed for going high speeds,” said Jeff Speck, the Washington, D.C.-based author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.” “So one of our key charges is creating street configurations that encourage driving the posted speed limit.”

* * *

“The Channel district is a place that clearly is walkable when you’re in it, without much to walk to,” said Dave Dixon of Stantec’s Urban Places Group and another of Vinik’s consultants. “It’s basically as if you’ve created something and branded it walkable and then created a whole bunch of roads to drive to it. It’s not a walkable district. It’s a place where you can get out of your condominium building or loft and walk to the corner store, but that’s not a walkable life.”

To some degree that is true (though the grid is really not that scary – witness all the people who go to the arena and walk to and from their parking without much trouble), though there has to be a good way to get to the area (see transit) and some flow to traffic (we are not sure about 4-way stops on downtown streets.  This is downtown after all – not a subdivision or small neighborhood.)  And the Channel District is not walkable because it is not truly a mixed use area and is not connected to the business part of downtown (like this and this) in any real way.  The reality is that more than roads that are just not that wide there has to be something to do and properly designed development connecting it – which is not the case now. Maybe that will change.

Then the reporter tells us:

But as a resident of the Channel district, I can say being a pedestrian seems especially treacherous there — it’s an urban neighborhood with the expectation of walkability, combined with driving patterns more suitable for the interstate. I love walking to the Riverwalk, but crossing Channelside Drive and Meridian Avenue is typically a stressful experience. You’re constantly craning your neck around, watching for drivers turning into the intersection — because they are almost assuredly going too fast to watch for you.

We would point out a more important point – very little built on Meridian or Channelside actually interacts with the street (PierHouse and the Port Parking garage – here and here – certainly do not. Nor does the garage next to the arena.)  The area is just not built to be walkable because the City settled.  And generally, free-standing parking garages do not add to walkability (though there are ways to mitigate like this, though not like this.) Hopefully, the Lightning owners plans will change that.

“What we’re actually talking about now is, how do you really connect it to the Channel neighborhood so that what you have is a continuous ring of urban, mixed-use, lively, cool neighborhoods that basically edge downtown,” Dixon said, “and frankly make it much more likely that [residents] would walk downtown to work because it’s an interesting walk that’s been thought through.”

And that is the key – thinking it through – which rarely has been done here. That is why we are encouraged – getting knowledgeable people is a sign of seriousness and is welcome.  And, while business interests are important, they actually wanting to think thing through. It is also good to see that they want to move forward quickly.

— The Past

Given the present situation and the coverage thereof, we thought it would be interesting to take a look back to 2002, from this Florida Trend blurb:

“We believe Tampa is one of the cities that has the best shot” at revitalizing its downtown, says Bob Abberger, managing director of Trammell Crow’s Florida development services.

Both developers expect to attract residents from the ranks of suburban commuters frustrated at spending an average of 40 minutes in their cars twice a day. “There’s more people on the road, and everybody has the same 24 hours on the clock,” says Ray Sandelli, senior managing director of CB Richard Ellis in Tampa. “The ability for people to live, work and play in proximity to each other is very attractive.”

Also helping the prospects for residential development are city investments in cultural and transportation infrastructure.

A new $32-million streetcar system connects Channelside to Ybor City, with stops on the fringes of downtown and a plan to expand. The new, $52-million Tampa Museum of Art is under construction, and the city’s marketing arm is touting the “cultural district” around the museum to attract shops, restaurants and bars.

“Philosophically, a downtown is really thought of as the personality of a city,” says Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which is charged with marketing the area. “Tampa needs to have, wants to have, a lively downtown.”

It does – and it has for decades, though it often did not act like it. (And note the “live, work, play formulation in use in 2002.) Though the streetcar clearly has not yet worked as advertised.  The museum and the park around it have done reasonably well as a catalyst.

The really interesting thing is that, as indicated in the article, nothing happening now has not been contemplated for decades.  It has been known for decades, really; it was just not done for a variety of reasons – some business, most involved settling. What is different now is that 1) over time, a reasonable mass has grown, 2) the pioneers of some urbanness showed that a market existed for something that few were willing to risk, 3) the market has grown both because of rise in population and because the Millennials (and others, really) are more drawn to urban living and amenities, and 4) other cities have taken advantage of our delays and showed us that we need to move faster.  Add to that the fortunate circumstance of people like the Lightning owner entering our market and good things can happen – as long as the City does not settle.  And the streetcar still needs to be made a real transportation system.

— Conclusion

The bottom line is that the Lightning owner shows all signs of wanting to do this right, and that is key.  It is refreshing that the developer is actually pushing the envelope (because the local government has never shown signs of doing so).  While there have been improvements, there has been talk of fixing downtown for decades – but there is always settling for developers’ desires (for instance the 40 year quest for a Riverwalk still did not lead to buildings that face the river, with a few exceptions) and, consequently, disappointment. Maybe, just maybe, the Lightning owner, with an apparent desire to do it right, can get it done this time.

Economy – Unemployment

There were new unemployment numbers this week:

The January unemployment rate in the Tampa metro area stood at 5.7 percent in January, the same as the state rate and a touch higher than the national average. The metropolitan statistical area includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties each had a 5.5 percent jobless rate, according to a report released Tuesday by the governor’s office.

Hernando County had the poorest showing in the region with a 7.5 percent jobless rate, up from 7 percent in December 2014. It was followed by Polk County with 6.6 percent, up from 6.2 percent in December, and Pasco County with 6.4 percent unemployed in January, up from 5.9 percent in December.

The state unemployment rate for January was 5.7 percent, the same rate as in December and down nearly a percentage point over 2014.

Nationwide, employers added 3.3 million jobs over the past year and the 5.5 percent unemployment in February, a drop from 6.7 percent in February 2014.

Looking just at the Hillsborough/Pinellas rate, we are basically average, though better than last year:

The Tampa metro area rate in January was up compared with a rate of 5.3 percent in December 2014, but dropped from 6.5 percent in the same month a year ago. Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties unemployment rates ticked up from December 2014 when both showed a 5.1 percent jobless rate. But the January figure is down from 6.2 percent in Hillsborough a year earlier and down from 6.3 percent a year ago in Pinellas County, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

And, though the numbers were worse than December, we’ll just assume that is due to Christmas season (even if it might not be).

Overall, the numbers are good (though not for the northern counties), but we do not think being average is excellent or a local boom.  And there is always the question of wages.

Economy – The Rent Issue

Speaking of wages, another thing that makes us wonder about many of the development plans in this area is this:

Rent in the Tampa metropolitan statistical area hasn’t increased as much as the national average over the past three years, but it is growing at twice the rate of income, according to a new study by the National Association of Realtors.

As much as we love urban development plans, with this area’s low incomes and apparently rapidly rising rents, we wonder how deep the market for relatively expensive rentals really is right now.  Hopefully, it will grow and sustain the developments, but it is definitely an issue (especially with the poor transit infrastructure forcing people to pay for the costs of car ownership).

Transportation – Here Come the Bike Lanes

The City has been busy putting in bike lanes on Platt and Cleveland.

Lenny Sain rides his bike to and from work at the Fly Bar every day— along Platt Street on the way into downtown and Cleveland Street on the way out.

He has been one of the first bicyclists to test ride the newly installed, buffered bike lane along Platt. The first such design in the city, it was added as part of a larger, $2.4 million repaving and traffic-calming project in that area. A similar buffered lane soon will be added on Cleveland Street.

* * *

City officials are pleased bikers have started using the new lane, but they aren’t so happy about the drivers who have also been using it, said Jean Duncan, the city’s director for transportation and stormwater services.

As part of the traffic-calming project, workers are reducing the speed limit on Platt and Cleveland from 40 mph to 35 and reducing the three-lane roads to just two, which is why there was enough room to create the bike lanes, buffers and on-street parking, Duncan said.

* * *

The Platt Street project stretches from Audubon Avenue to Bayshore Boulevard, and the Cleveland Street project will stretch from the Hillsborough River west to South Armenia Avenue.

Once the projects are finished, the city will paint swatches of the bike lanes green near intersections where drivers will need to pay extra close attention to cyclists when they turn, Duncan said. At some point, her department will look into doing the same thing on existing bike lanes in other parts of the city.

We have no objection to putting in bike lanes, especially if they are buffered from traffic. (They are.  See the picture below.)  Our biggest concern is that cutting the lanes and slowing the speed limit may choke access to downtown – while having residents downtown is great, the reality is that for downtown to thrive, people from outside downtown have to be able to get there relatively easily.

And look at the picture of Platt from the article:

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

First, that is way better than the completely absurd (and basically unused) bike lane on Dale Mabry. (See here and then try to figure out why you wouldn’t use the sidewalk there so as to preserve your life.)

We are told:

Her department closely studied the changes to the roads before making them so it wouldn’t disrupt the flow of traffic on those major thoroughfares in and out of downtown, Duncan said. And the new designs provided for “desperately needed” free parking spots in South Tampa, she said.

Which is fine. One thing we notice, other than that swerving of the bike lanes (who could be confused by that?) – which is odd but probably has some logic to it – is the lack of parking spaces.  In the picture, there is one bus only space (presumably in front of a bus stop) and another lined area that seems perfect for a parking space.  Why not work to add more?

Putting in bike lanes is great (far better than the “share the road” concept where streets are just designated also bike paths).  We just hope that as the process continues 1) traffic is not completely choked and 2) the outcome is logical, intuitive, and really makes the best use of the right of way to add as much parking as possible.  Now, if only the County would get on board and coordinate with the City so everyone could benefit.

TIA – Surely, Something Can Be Done

The airport fact sheet for 2014 came out recently.  Aside from telling us annual passenger numbers (17,552,707 (+3.74% from CY 2013))    It has this interesting nugget:

Top 10 Markets for Tampa: 1. New York 2. Chicago 3. Washington D.C. 4. Atlanta 5. Detroit 6. Boston 7. Baltimore 8. Philadelphia 9. San Francisco 10. Dallas

So, San Francisco is the 9th largest market.  We know the airport is trying, but surely that can be used to sell a nonstop flight to some airline.

Economic Development – How Many Playing Fields You Need, Again

The County is moving forward with its quest for playing fields.

County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to seek landowners and developers in order to build a multi-sports complex with 16 to 20 fields. Two different requests for proposals will be put out concurrently — one for land, the other for a firm or firms that can design and build the complex.

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who secured $15 million in county funds for the complex more than two years ago, said this type of center is sorely needed if Hillsborough wants to compete with other counties for amateur sports tournaments. Though the complex is unlikely to pay for itself, at least in the early years, the visitors it attracts will boost the local economy, Hagan said.

“A complex of this magnitude will be a revenue-producing asset that boosts our economy through hotel room nights and consumer spending that occurs as a result of hosting these tournaments,” Hagan said. “In my opinion, our goal should be to offer an ideal blend of economic and social development in our community.”

Top county administrators have been working since December on structuring the requests for proposals to attract as wide a range of options for the county as possible, Hagan said. The hope is that by separating the proposals for land, design and construction, and — after the center is built — operations and maintenance, the county will save money.

The question is whether the County should be spending any money on a complex built specifically for this purpose.  Is there no private interest in building and operating such a complex with subsidy?  Do we really care if a competition is held in an adjacent county?  Is this the best use of $15 million (which is much more – about 7 ½ times as much – than the incentive proposed for a back office Johnson & Johnson project which is supposed to produce 700 high wage jobs.  Will the playing fields investment bring 4900 high wage jobs)?

Then again, did you think anything else would happen?

The only opposition to the plan came from Commissioner Victor Crist, who said no one had come to talk to him about the project. Crist said before the commission moved forward, needs and impact assessments should be done.

Money for the sports complex could be used for existing county parks, Crist said, many of which are in need of renovations.

Such studies are reasonable.

In December, Crist offered to vote for Hagan’s motion to seek bids on the sports complex in return for Hagan’s support for an arts and cultural center in New Tampa, where Crist lives. 

Nevermind.

And, of course, the County paid a consultant to tell it that it should do what it wanted to do anyway.

The question remains: in a county without money for transportation and trying to transform its economy to a higher wage economy is this the best use of $15 million?

Economic Development – Tourism is Good, But  . . .

Tourism numbers are out, and are good.

Room occupancy in February was at about 86 percent, 7 percent from the same month in 2014. The room rate was up 10 percent from 2014 at $119.48 and the revenue per available room was up 18 percent at $108.

* * *

Hillsborough County collected about $2.5 million in Tourism Development Taxes in February. That number is up more than 16 percent from last year. This year’s fiscal calendar for Visit Tampa Bay – which began Oct. 1 – is running more than 15 percent over last year at this point and almost 9 percent over 2007’s numbers, the previous record. 

And that is all good.  However, the same report tells us this:

“Every month we’re showing double digit growth over last year,” Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, said in a statement. “It’s nice to be No. 1 against our competitive set and it’s overwhelming the amount of business we’re driving here.”

Room occupancy in February was at about 86 percent, 7 percent from the same month in 2014. The room rate was up 10 percent from 2014 at $119.48 and the revenue per available room was up 18 percent at $108.

The Tampa metro’s room revenue numbers are usually in the top three of its competitive set. The other cities in the set include Ft. Lauderdale; Orlando; Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Baltimore, Md.; Milwaukee; Austin, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; and Long Beach, Calif., according to Visit Tampa Bay.

Number one in what exactly?  Occupancy? Room rates? Growth? Tax revenue?  Definitely not the last one because:

Corrada has set a goal of reaching a three-year total of $30 million in bed taxes by Dec. 31, 2017. This achievement would bump Hillsborough County onto Florida’s list of “high-impact tourism” counties. Then, the county commission could potentially raise the bed tax by a penny. Eight Florida counties now qualify — Duval, Volusia, Orange, Osceola, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Pinellas.

(Note: we agree with that goal.)  If we are beating Ft. Lauderdale (Broward) or Orlando (not a chance) in tax revenue, how is it that they qualify for the extra tax while we do not.  And growth is good but does not tell us if we are still way behind and playing catch up or moving ahead. (And, much as we like tourism, we’d trade our tourism #1 with some of those places if we could get their income levels.)

Once again, the numbers look good.  The hype is not.

List of the Week I

In line with our first item above, our first list this week is brought to us courtesy of a reader who forwarded a link last week: smartgrowthamerica.org’s walkable urbanism of the 30 biggest metro areas.  You can read the whole report here.  Just note that the report is based far more on how things are constructed rather than road grids.

Because it is just 30 metro areas, we will put the whole list here.  Coming in most walkable is DC, followed by NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, Columbus, Kansas City, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Sacramento, Detroit, Miami, San Diego, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Tampa, Phoenix, and Orlando.

Here is what the report says about our level of urbanism:

LOW WALKABLE URBANISM

Sacramento, San Diego, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Tampa, and Orlando have low percentages of walkable urban office and retail development over-all, and nearly all of it is in the central city. While Sacramento and San Diego have invested in light rail, outside of their revitalized downtowns and downtown adjacent areas there is little evidence of this investment resulting in walkable urban development.

Historically, drivable sub-urban development has characterized metro Detroit, Miami, and Phoenix. However, in contrast to their popular reputations and low rankings at present, all three metros are experiencing revitalization of their downtowns—and even some urbanizing suburbs—with several outstanding examples of WalkUPs in them

(@ pg 13) So Tampa and Orlando do not really earn a mention.

One thing that should be remembered is that biking and walking go hand in hand.  As with so many things, we are making progress but are quite far behind.  We need an accelerated plan to catch up – as an area – to even become average.  And it should be noted that the Lightning owner’s plans, while very welcome, are still relatively small in relation to the overall area and will not really bring us to the level of the usual suspects.

List of the Week II

Our second list this week shows that we have made progress because Travel & Leisure finally is really noting that we exist: its “So You’re a Little Weird: the 20 Quirkiest Cities in America.”

Coming is as quirkiest, not surprisingly, is New Orleans, followed by Austin,  Portland (OR), Providence, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Baltimore, Kansas City, Seattle, NYC, Tampa, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME), Houston, Nashville, LA, Philadelphia, Louisville, and Atlanta.

Here’s what they say about us:

  1. Tampa, Florida

The NFL’s Buccaneer mascot is no joke in this Florida city, new to the survey this year. Gasparilla season—parades and festivals celebrating the city’s centuries-old pirate history—lasts throughout the winter, but year round, you can embrace the swashbuckling spirit at Gaspar’s Grotto, offering a $25 “bucket of grog” (read: a huge margarita) to share with friends. To explore one colorful chapter in the city’s history, go to Ybor City—once known as the cigar capital of the world—and visit the two remaining stogie factories, J.C. Newman and Tampa Sweethearts. Showing the diversity of taste here, readers were equally impressed by Tampa’s luxury shopping and its flea markets; one local favorite for budget finds is the Wagon Wheel Flea Market, which ups the ante with live music and a beer garden.

So they like drinking, though we never thought the Wagon Wheel Flea Market would make Travel & Leisure. Fine with us.

 

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