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Roundup 2015-8-14

August 14, 2015


Port/Channel District/Downtown – The Big Reveal

Transportation – More on TBX

Transportation – Waffles

Transportation – PTC Stands Firm . . . Against Almost Everyone

Economy – Housing Prices

Economy – Millennials Beware

Built Environment – How to Redevelop a Mall

What Ever Happened to Streetcars?

List of the Week


Port/Channel District/Downtown – The Big Reveal

This week the port revealed its master plan (the result of a completely transparent and open process) for the land it owns in the Channel District.

Port Tampa Bay today unveiled an elaborate $1.5 billion plan for 45 acres of land in the Channel District — much of it on the waterfront — including hotels, residential towers, a major park and marina.

* * *

The port’s Channelside plan, which could get underway within a year, also is an acknowledgement that the port has no plans to move its cruise ship terminals toward Pinellas County to accommodate new and much larger cruise ships currently hindered by the Skyway.

It could also mean either a move or an exit for much of the port’s ship-repair business.

In the works for about a year now, port officials, along with city and county elected representatives, have kept their plans close to the vest, waiting for the big announcement.

Oh, wait.  It was not open or transparent at all, as per traditional Tampa DNA.  (And who needs ship repair in a port?) In any event, what did the Port say?

Maximizing the potential for 45 port owned acres of land along Channelside Drive and the Ybor Channel, The Channel District Vision Plan dramatically builds upon the area’s current revitalization. It calls for the development of more than $9 million square feet of mixed-use space and $1.5 billion in private investment over the next decade or so.

Here is the site plan-ish graphic:

From the Port Authority website – click for website

Getting to the Port’s release, there are a lot of other pretty pictures of potential buildings, too. We especially like this one which we saw in the Times because it shows the very bold plan to build mountains somewhere in Pinellas County and the Gulf of Mexico.

From the Times – click on picture for article

But those pictures are largely irrelevant, as we will explain below.

First, we are happy the cruise terminals stay (for now), though that does not deal with the future of the cruise industry in Tampa.  We also like the concept of the park in the middle of the extensive property.  It is not quite waterfront, but with the cruise ships there, it will not really be waterfront.  We are also not sure why we need an amphitheater there (or whether the residents of the towers in the renderings will really appreciate the noise and crowds), but whatever.  Every park needs a performance space and (splash pad – maybe a history walk, too)

We are not overly excited that the plan seems to do little to make Channelside Drive a really walkable street unless you are going to the park – particularly on the north (left) end where the main feature on Channelside is a number a driveways and no pedestrian connection.  With the skywalk fetish (see all the renderings), you would think they could have put an access road and kept the street pedestrian friendly. But, as there is not actual project, that bad Tampa-style planning and lack of attention to detail is not set in stone, so hopefully it can be changed.

We are also not sure how there is going to be $1.5 billion in private development on this property while just across the street, basically, the Lightning owner is putting in $1 billion on basically the same stuff.  There may be $3 billion of development downtown in the next 10 years.  That would be great, but we are not going to assume it. As explained by the Related CEO:

“We love Tampa as a rental market,” he said. “There’s a strong rental demand there, like in Atlanta.”

Currently, he added, condo development is less attractive because “Tampa is pretty much a local market” and does not attract foreign buyers like those fueling Miami’s current condo boom.

So, if it is not investors snapping up all these units, that is a very large number of people to fill all these units.  It could happen, but  . . .

The downtown real estate market will ultimately decide whether the port’s vision ever becomes reality, as it plans to work with private developers to bring the commercial space to fruition. The vision includes two “landmark towers,” up to 75 stories, that the port says “will be among the tallest and most notable on Florida’s West Coast.”

The port, the city and Channel District Community Redevelopment Agency will fund infrastructure costs.

Anderson said that at this point, the port anticipates working with developers on a ground-lease basis, similar to its arrangement with SPP on Channelside Bay Plaza.

He said the port may be open to selling some parcels but will “never” sell anything on the waterfront.

Setting aside that 75 stories would obviously be notable in Tampa (and probably not allowed by the FAA), this leads us to why the renderings are not particularly relevant.  The plan relies entirely on developers. (Maybe the Lighting owner is in line to develop this land, too.) Thus, everything in the pretty pictures is entirely speculative (except maybe the park idea generally).  There have been decades of these kind of pretty pictures of downtown tossed around in Tampa. (check out these models from the early 1980s here, here, and here)   If all the pretty pictures and plans had come to fruition, there would have been no press conference at the Port today.

“The potential, if this comes to fruition, could be really exciting for the port and for the Channel District and also will help to connect Ybor City to downtown in pretty significant ways,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who is scheduled to discuss the plan’s impact on the city at a 10:30 a.m. news conference.

Kind of big “if.”  (It may also explain the City’s lack of enthusiasm to the GasWorx proposal a little north of this property).

Moreover, given the poor record the Port board has with partnering with private developers (and building things like the awful parking garage across from the Aquarium) as well as the City and area’s well known proclivity to settle then claim victory, we are not going to take the drawings that seriously.

While the Channelside Vision is still in its infancy, it would not take much to get construction underway, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. He said most of the land use changes are fairly minor.

Construction would likely begin in front of the Florida Aquarium, where the port would make a land swap, moving parking for the popular attraction into a nearby parking garage, then converting the existing lot into a hotel with an open-air market, or mercado, underneath.

The project would slowly continue north, with creation of two thin residential towers up to 75 stories, demolition of Cruise Ship Terminal 6, then expansion of Terminal 3, a 7-acre park, roughly the size of Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa, as well as various retail and office spots.

Is there something we should know?   When is the first RFP? Have contracts been signed?

It may come or it may not. (Of course, there could be a back room agreement on some of this development.  We’ll just have to see.) For now, it is all just pretty pictures and hidden discussions.

When an actual project is announced, we will discuss it.

Transportation – More on TBX

There was an editorial in the Tribune this week which endorsed TBX, express lanes and all.  We won’t cover the whole thing (you can read it here).  However, there was something of note:

The expansion project has been in the state transportation plan since 1996, and the DOT has been purchasing right-of-way in preparation for the widening for years. But the recent fast-tracking of the project has sparked opposition in the affected neighborhoods, and understandably so. All totaled, the construction will claim 100 house and 30 businesses along the way, as well as a community center and public gardens.

To its credit, the DOT has already been meeting with residents in the neighborhoods and is prepared to offer a number of ways to minimize the impact. Paul Steinman, the DOT’s district secretary for this area, told the Tribune Editorial Board this week that space for a community gardens could be included in the plans and that the areas under and around the overpasses can be designed as spaces for recreation or other community activities. They can be made aesthetically pleasing with lighting, landscaping and artwork.

The efforts signal the DOT’s willingness to work with the neighborhoods. We hope opponents will work with the DOT because the widening project is essential for moving commuters, freight and tourists though our area. With more than 800 people moving to Florida every day, and nearly 100 million tourists visiting annually, the congestion will only get worse and negatively affect our commerce and quality of life.

There is no question that a major setback to the recovery of the Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights neighborhoods would be devastating. But the widening project is critical for Tampa’s transportation future. The MPO’s decision Tuesday addresses both of those realities and establishes a framework for moving forward responsibly

There is a lot to digest here.  First, it is highly unlikely that this particular project – with variable rate toll lanes – has been on the books since 1996 because dynamic pricing seems to have originated in 1998 and was unknown in Florida for years after that.  It is true that there was proposal to widen the roads, and that is needed. How exactly to do it is the question.

Second, a couple of community gardens under the overpass is not really working with a neighborhood or addressing the greater concerns of no real transit, the problems of variable rate toll lanes, etc.  But local officials are not going to really argue with FDOT.

Third, as pointed out in this interesting graphic

From Skycrapercity – click on picture for website

25% of the lanes on the expanded Veterans will only handle up to 8% of the traffic, and there will be no more expansion.  It is hard to make the argument that using 25% of a road for even 10% of traffic is a logical and efficient system. (Of course, variable rate lanes are designed to NOT carry as much traffic as other lanes because if you don’t pay extra you do not deserve to have good roads.)  As we have said, it seems like a strange transportation strategy, especially for a policy that will be the main transportation strategy for the area and cost $6-9 BILLION – far more than anything Go Hillsborough will invest.

Now consider this, from a Texas A&M document on variable rate tolling:

Variable pricing works best by encouraging motorists to shift their travel time, alter their route, or use alternative transportation options, so this strategy is best applied on roadways that have readily available alternatives to travelling on the congested corridor, either by using transit or a parallel route. They can be useful when the trips occurring in a corridor are discretionary and motorists could easily choose to drive at an alternative time or eliminate the trip entirely.

None of the conditions to make variable pricing work the best are present in Hillsborough County/Tampa.  There is not a transit alternative (nor is there likely to be one for most people in the foreseeable future).  There are no good alternate roads (on the contrary, the whole county is built to force people to drive, shove them onto already overcrowded arterial roads, and have them sit there – much like the purpose of variable rate lanes), and we need a way to relieve congestion at all times – not just trips that can be avoided).  But, the express lane policy is ideological, not practical.  It is not a response to a specific need based on specific facts, it is a response to every need, regardless of facts.

So, as we have said – yes, the roads need to be expanded but this is not the way to do it.  In fact, all transportation planning in this area is a mess.  In an interesting interview with Honolulu’s now transportation planner about how Honolulu became a traffic mess (thanks to URBN Tampa Bay), we found a very interesting comment:

In spite of tremendous opportunities, resources and efforts, transportation planning in Honolulu has been an abysmal failure. Instead of taking a systems approach, integrating land-use development, new technologies and innovative ideas, we suffer from being “behind the curve,” implementing decades-old ideas and trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. [As in the case of the] Superferry and TMT, there has been poor leadership, pathetic engagement of stakeholders, and a winner-takes-all approach to complex planning problems. These are huge public investments that demand rigorous and innovative approaches to joint planning, development, and true shared governance. Otherwise, there will be winners and losers and the community as a whole suffers.

The devil truly is in the details. Many of the details are being managed by faceless outside consultants rather than in a transparent, open, community learning process. We need to debunk the myth of the outside expert. One of the first things I learned about transportation planning is that everyone is an expert. Local knowledge about road conditions, peak travel times, congestion, speed, etc. is not just in the Departments of Transportations and their consulting firms, but it is known and used by people who drive and commute and rush to and from work and school and manage getting to their activities. As an island community, we have an opportunity to truly understand and model and develop traffic solutions. This would require a much greater emphasis not just on data collection, but also building local capacity to understand problems, to design solutions and to work toward continuous learning, engagement and design. There are stunning new technologies in mapping, visualization and monitoring of movements through smartphones, GPS, remote sensing, real-time delivery of information that could be used collectively to optimize our travel decision-making. So we could first and foremost use our existing resources much more effectively. We don’t invest enough in science and technology and integrate it with public policies and decision-making.  

We could have not said it better ourselves to describe the deficiencies in local and state planning. There is no real consideration of a system – as you can see from all the separate agencies engaging in separate plans while the TPC/Go Hillsborough thing was dragging along.  There is no comprehensive vision.  And there is no political will to really tackle the challenges.

And then there was this from an editorial in the Times:

Now, the bad news. Steinman said the state still doesn’t have in its long-range plans the $1 billion needed to remake the Tampa interchange. Those improvements are years away. A lack of state money also means that any new highway lanes are likely to be tolled. And Steinman was frank in calling out the region’s long failure to support its mass transit system. Even a measure Hillsborough is preparing for the 2016 ballot falls short of building up the bus system, much less laying a foundation for rail.

In the ideal situation, the state would not resort to using toll lanes to address its congestion problems. That will only create a two-tiered highway system — a speedier one for those who can afford it — when the government should be acknowledging that highways are an essential part of society and the economy. But the fault for failing to adequately fund transportation rests with the governor and the Florida Legislature, not DOT. And Tampa Bay cannot wait for more progressive tax policy in Tallahassee to address its choking traffic.

The sad reality is Tampa Bay is years away from creating a modern transit system. Steinman said the DOT has quit pursuing plans for a multi-modal station on the site of a hotel in Tampa’s West Shore business district because the cost went through the roof. The state is playing catch-up in an urban commercial center across from a growing international airport — with no clear plans for a transit hub or a mass transit system for moving people across the bay.

This is the state of the road network and transit policy in the region. The DOT’s assurances are more community-minded and more enlightened toward transit. But until bay area officials get serious about mass transit, the only choice is wider highways and working on the margins with the DOT to enhance the look, sound and feel of highway underpasses. That’s not the fault of the state agency but of elected leaders.

Setting aside that FDOT’s plans for TBX will not really solve anything, that is all true. Remember that the real blame is the failure of local government to properly plan and advocate on behalf of the area.  If we had a real regional plan with real political support, FDOT would go along with it.

Transportation – Waffles

Speaking of local officials and on transportation:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham is going on the road to campaign for “undecided” on the proposal for a half-cent sales tax for transportation needs.

Higginbotham said he’s got about two-dozen appearances scheduled at civic clubs and homeowners’ associations to talk about the proposal, but still hasn’t made up his mind whether he’s for or against it.

“I want to see what the referendum proposal looks like,” he said. “I want to see what the feel of the citizens is … I’m not keen on a tax, but the feedback that I’m getting in the field is people are supportive of this.”

Higginbotham said he’ll speak on “the problems we’re faced with and the available resources.”

No one wants to pay more taxes.  Yet, at some point, you just have to decide whether we need more money to fix transportation or not, regardless of whether other people favor it or not.  That is leadership.  Even though it is the policy of the County Commission, perpetual waffling is useless. (As is failure to deal openly, honestly, with clear proposals rather than just vague rhetoric, which is the practice of other elected officials.) It all helps explain why we lag other areas.

Transportation – PTC Stands Firm . . . Against Almost Everyone

Speaking of local transportation issues:

A circuit judge on Friday denied a motion from regulators asking for an injunction that could have forced the rideshare company to stop serving the county.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Paul Huey sided with Uber against the Public Transportation Commission, the regulatory agency that argued the rideshare company lacks appropriate background checks, insurance, safety and vehicle inspections required of taxis.

Of course, that does not mean anything in the long run because the case is not over, but

“We thought it was going to be easy-peasy, slam dunk,” said PTC Chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist. “Frankly, we’re absolutely shocked.”

Well, litigation is a funny thing.  In any event, maybe this will motivate the PTC to stop being the vanguard of local luddites and actually deal with ridesharing rationally, though we doubt it (note that the PTC will appeal the ruling and keep ticketing Uber drivers). Nevermind that it seems pretty clear that almost no one (other than  taxi companies the PTC protects) supports the PTC position, including the Young Republicans. Add another to the list,

The Epicurean Hotel in South Tampa will now summon an Uber driver for guests who don’t have the ridesharing app on their smartphones.

“It’s what people want,” said Tom Haines, general manager.

The concierge will use an iPad to request an Uber car, and the charge will be billed to the guest’s room, Haines said. Uber, he said, does not charge the hotel a fee for offering the service to its guests.

Yes, it is what people want, but the elected officials on the PTC have demonstrated that they do not care.

Economy – Housing Prices

There was a column in the Times regarding how local housing prices compare to other areas.

Tampa Bay’s median home price enjoyed a bump to $175,000, a brisk 12.2 percent annual gain in the second quarter, but those figures reveal a housing market that remains sharply cheaper than many of its peer metro areas in Florida and the Southeast.

* * *

Within the state, Orlando’s median price hit $198,000 and Jacksonville cracked the $200,000 marker at $204,500, with the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro topping the larger Florida markets at $289,900 — all up from a year ago but at slower growth rates than in Tampa Bay.

A strip of Florida’s east coast enjoyed some of the faster leaps in housing prices in the country. According to the National Association of Realtors, home prices rose rapidly in the stretch of small cities between Port St. Lucie and Titusville, with the median sales price in those areas rising about 20 percent from a year earlier.

Among major metros in the Southeast, Atlanta’s median home price rose 9.2 percent to $181,500. That’s $6,500 more than Tampa Bay’s median price after a period of years when this Florida housing market was consistently more expensive than Atlanta.

In North Carolina, Charlotte’s median price was up 11.3 percent to $211,400, while Raleigh enjoyed a 17.2 percent spurt to $247,900 — reflecting the state capital’s ongoing reputation as a go-to place for technology companies, millennials and well-educated workers.

Like Raleigh, some other markets that Tampa Bay likes to compare itself to are getting expensive. In Texas, Austin’s median home price hit $271,900, up almost 10 percent on the year. And Nashville homes rose 12.8 percent to $208,500, more than $33,000 above Tampa Bay’s comparable price.

So what does this all mean?

The lower price yet higher growth in Tampa Bay marks it as a more affordable market that’s still appreciating faster than many similar metros in the state and southern region. That’s not only a promising opportunity for home buyers but a marketing message for Tampa Bay economic development leaders to businesses considering relocation or expansion here: There’s good bang for the investment buck, especially with mortgage rates still extremely low.

That is definitely one way to look at it.  Another way to look at it is that there is still an overall weakness in the market – either, even with increased demand, overall demand relative to other areas is still lower, as is available income to pay for housing. Or there is still over-supply.  Regardless, for now, low prices can be used as a marketing tool (if you have it, use it).  However, it should not be overly celebrated because it indicates that we are still lagging behind in the amount of money people have to spend – or are willing to spend – to live in this area. And our relative weakness is emphasized in fact that we a consistently high on the list of foreclosures, even as the overall number comes down.  Once again, we are improving in something, but others are doing better.

Economy – Millennials Beware

Speaking of our local economic performance, or lack thereof, there was another column in the Times regarding areas that are good for people with student loans to pay off.

A new study examining how state economies help or hurt residents coping with student debt finds Florida ranks among the least friendly states.

The Sunshine State ranks 40th among states and the District of Columbia based on factors ranging from the average size of student debt and the proportion of students with debt to the share of students with loans in default and the jobless rate for residents ages 25 to 34.

Put simply, Florida falls into the lowest ranks because its residents with student loans tend to have higher levels of such debt and higher default rates. They also face a job market in Florida with below-average wages in a state that is an increasingly expensive place to live.

Burdened over time, debt-laden residents are forced to hold off on larger purchases, such as homes, and appear to marry and start families later — effectively delaying their contributions to growing the economy. Florida’s rising real estate and rental costs also require residents to devote a higher percentage of their wages to cover housing costs.

Given that our incomes/GMP tend to be on the lower end of major Florida metros, this is magnified for our area.  And the fact is that subsidizing sprawl, pursuing pet projects (like the bizarre push to bring Jai alai to the USF area ), and focusing on low paying jobs rather than focusing on what we really need – higher paying jobs and the better transportation, education, planning, etc., that help draw them will not help.

Built Environment – How to Redevelop a Mall

Over at URBN Tampa Bay they noted an article on redeveloping malls that featured Belmar in Colorado. (See the article here)  We had previously mentioned this particular development in discussing adaptive reuse. (See “Built Environment – Real Adaptive Reuse” )  Given all the talk about rebuilding University Mall and revitalizing that area, it is definitely an article worth reading and understanding.

The key takeaway is that, as is mentioned for University Mall, simply rearranging the blocks of buildings in a sea of parking (whether you take the roof off or not) will not really change the nature of the beast. However, real changes can be made and be successful.  What would be really nice is if there was real effort to transform that very important property.

What Ever Happened to Streetcars?

As many will know, streetcars (and other transit) were far more common in the United States many years ago.  There are many theories about why it faded.  This week we noticed an article in Vox media about another analysis of what caused the demise of streetcars.

Back in the 1920s, most American city-dwellers took public transportation to work every day.

There were 17,000 miles of streetcar lines across the country, running through virtually every major American city. That included cities we don’t think of as hubs for mass transit today: Atlanta, Raleigh, and Los Angeles.

Nowadays, by contrast, just 5 percent or so of workers commute via public transit, and they’re disproportionately clustered in a handful of dense cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Just a handful of cities still have extensive streetcar systems — and several others are now spending millions trying to build new, smaller ones.

That is quite a drop.  What happened?

“There’s this widespread conspiracy theory that the streetcars were bought up by a company National City Lines, which was effectively controlled by GM, so that they could be torn up and converted into bus lines,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

But that’s not actually the full story, he says. “By the time National City Lines was buying up these streetcar companies, they were already in bankruptcy.”

Surprisingly, though, streetcars didn’t solely go bankrupt because people chose cars over rail. The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.

You can read the whole article but, essentially, streetcars (as opposed to light rail) run in traffic and, as traffic grew, they became less useful.

In some places, like Chicago, streetcars retained dedicated rights of way, and they survived. Pretty much anywhere else, they were doomed. “With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass-transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays,” writes Cecilia Rasmussen at the Los Angeles Times.

What’s more, in many cities the streetcars’ contracts required them to keep the pavement on the roads surrounding the tracks in good shape. This meant that the companies were effectively subsidizing automobile travel even as it cannibalized their business.

And paying for this maintenance got more and more difficult for one key reason: many contracts had permanently locked companies into a 5-cent fare, which wasn’t indexed to inflation.

In other words, not having dedicated right of way for the train/streetcar and having to subsidize roads (especially with changed planning rules) while keeping fares low caused all sorts of problems.  One of the lessons is that transit needs to be separate from traffic to be truly useful – which is one reason Metro Rapid is not really the answer to transportation issues.  You also need proper planning and development in more than just a downtown area.

That leads us to another Vox media article on why US transit is, for the most part, substandard compared to the rest of the world.  You can read the whole article here, but the key is this:

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

Sounds familiar.  One of the reasons transit in this area is so bad is that is it thought of as something for someone other than those planning it. (As made clear by the variable rate lane concept, the entire attitude of the transportation is to stratify users rather than provide comprehensively good service regardless of means.) Until transit is considered a real priority for moving all manner of people around, it will lag.  It is worth a read.

List of the Week

We do not have a list this week other than to say this is the rainiest summer we have ever seen, and that has taken some of our attention recently.  Thankfully, our local governments have spent the last few decades fixing the storm water system County-wide instead of subsidizing private developments and pet projects.

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