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Roundup 11-20-2015

November 20, 2015


Transportation – Of Referendums and Being a Winner

Transportation – TBX, FDOT, and Real Input

Downtown/Channel District – An Update from the Lightning Owner

— And a Note from St. Pete

Downtown/Hyde Park – Tribune Property Project Moves Forward

Transportation – Real Bike Lanes

Coming Out Watch – A Window on Reality

Cuba Flights – A Question

List of the Week


Transportation – Of Referendums and Being a Winner

There was an article in the Times regarding how whether there is a transportation referendum or not really is up to one vote.

The fate of Hillsborough County’s ambitious transportation initiative appears to lie in the hands of one man: Commissioner Victor Crist.

County commissioners will soon decide whether to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase that would raise $117 million a year for transportation projects. Six of seven commissioners have staked out positions.

Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Ken Hagan and Les Miller back the sales tax referendum as the county’s best option to improve roads, highways, bridges and transit. Commissioners Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Stacy White oppose it in favor of other solutions that don’t need voter approval but provide less flexibility and fewer dollars.

That leaves Crist — a Republican representing primarily the north county — as the pivotal swing vote on Go Hillsborough, perhaps the most important issue facing the county. A decision could come as soon as next month.

Much of the article is filler, but the real key is this:

“For me, it’s a lose-lose proposition,” Crist said after the vote. “If I vote against it, I’m the guy who killed the plan. If I vote for it, I’m the guy who moved the bad plan forward.”

That formulation shows the inherent flaw in local politics. The fact is that he can kill any plan by voting no.  However, if he votes yes, he simply allows people to have a say – which, as we said last week, is true democracy.  We cannot even speak to the plan, because we haven’t seen it.  (And from what we have seen, we are not very excited. But if it is so bad, fix it.)  However, we still think people should be able to decide.  If opponents of the plan think it is so bad and so unpopular, they should have no fear of a referendum passing.  If people really want the plan, they should be allowed to say so.  Either way, people should be able to vote.  By allowing a referendum, the Commissioner is not approving the plan, he is approving letting people have their say, which is the reasons there is a referendum process for tax increases anyway – that is a conclusive win. So, in reality, it is a lose-win proposition.

Let the people decide.

Transportation – TBX, FDOT, and Real Input

This week, as part of what appears to be a new approach to pushing TBX, FDOT was making nice without actually reconsidering it.

With the huge Tampa Bay Express interstate construction project on a path to move forward, there are few signs neighborhood opponents can stop it dead.

But officials say residents can have a say in how a rebuilt “Malfunction Junction” interchange looks from the ground.

That’s why the Florida Department of Transportation is holding a series of community meetings at the John F. Germany Public Library on the design of the massive project, particularly the part that affects neighborhoods like Tampa Heights.

“We’re looking at ways to mitigate some of those impacts,” FDOT community liaison administrator Lee Beasley told the City Council Thursday.

In other words, public input is welcome as long as it supports TBX, because you have no choice about that. As we have said, the public outreach has nothing to do with the merits of TBX.  FDOT doesn’t care what the public thinks about that, nor do local officials really.  As with so much in this area, that was a done deal before anyone got around to discussing it with the public.

It also will expand and rebuild Tampa’s downtown interchange — a $1.8 billion piece of the larger project that has incensed residents in downtown, V.M. Ybor, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights.

In response to about six months of vocal opposition to TBX, the FDOT has hired Taryn Sabia, an architect with the University of South Florida’s Center for Community Design, to facilitate the meetings where neighborhood representatives are asked to make suggestions about ways to cushion TBX’s impact.

In play are ideas that include reconnecting city streets separated by the original construction of I-275 in the 1960s, putting dog parks, ball courts or other green spaces under or near the overpasses and trying to enhance interstate walls and supports with brick, ornamental lighting or public art.

Once again, the public can suggest ways to dress it up but can’t decide whether it wants TBX.

Already, Beasley said, “we’ve heard loudly, folks want some transit alternatives.” To address that, FDOT said last week it would work with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority on a study of transit alternatives including commuter rail.

Which raises the question once again of why it is not all studied comprehensively before TBX is approved.  Is it needed?  Will variable rate lanes do anything useful? Is that the option people really want for this area?  Is there a better way to spend the money?  Can 12 lane wide overpasses really allow for complete streets and connectivity under the highway, even if you put ornamental, precast cladding on it? Yes, we need better roads but only in concert with other options.  And do we really need TBX?

And then there was something that made us wonder about whether the transit study was really a comprehensive look at transit or a way to present more reasons for TBX:

Florida Department of Transportation officials confirmed this week that express bus services and school buses will be allowed to use the toll lanes for free to avoid congestion along sections of the highway through downtown Tampa.

That was something of a shift after state transportation officials earlier this week would only say that the concept of buses using the toll lanes was still “on the table.”

That upset City Councilman Mike Suarez, who serves as board chairman on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Suarez warned state transportation officials that their vague answers about the project were turning more people against it.

Interesting, but these sound like the real motivations:

Opening the lanes to buses would help boost acceptance of the project and give the region another transportation option, Suarez said.


“We could do express bus service on managed lanes from downtown to the airport and get people there very quickly, especially during rush hour traffic,” Suarez said.

In other words, will the study really address the need for real local transit like rail or just present TBX as the great alternative?  It is hard to know. Of course, the whole argument for using variable rate lanes for buses is hurt by these two things:

Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the transportation department’s Tampa district, said later that buses would be allowed access but the state would require HART and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to run enough buses for a robust express service to take advantage of the express lanes.

In other words, local bus service must really crowd the variable rate lanes to make sure they get more congested (why? Who knows?  What difference does it make to FDOT?) pushing more cars into the normal lanes and raising tolls in the variable rate lanes. And, as we discussed last week:

Pinellas County buses might soon bypass congestion by driving along the shoulder of Interstate 275, a time-saving maneuver not available to every other motorist stuck in traffic.

If the buses can use the shoulder when there is congestion, why do they need to use variable rate lanes? Nevermind.

And that does not even go to this very good point from URBN Tampa Bay:

If, as seems to be the case, access to the variable rate lanes is restricted and traffic forced through the normal lanes at choke points, how is that really going to be good for transit or traffic?  And why aren’t local officials really discussing it and demanding changes?

Nevertheless, some local officials praised FDOT:

“I think they have been far more responsive, far more open, far more willing to look at options,” Buckhorn said, adding he hopes all sides work to find common ground on mitigation strategies for TBX. “FDOT is capable of being creative and being accommodating. That historically hasn’t been the case. … I think FDOT understands that this is not your typical interstate expansion in a rural area. This is an urban expansion in neighborhoods that have come back to life and that are active and engaged and vocal, as they should be, and that they’re going to have to work with them.”

If by “responsive” you mean imposing TBX on the area without discussion and not doing a comprehensive transportation study before deciding if TBX is a good idea (and the best use of resources), then, yes, they are responsive. (Not to mention going out of their way to stop improvements in Tampa Heights, even though TBX is supposedly years away. here and here)   Yes, they are willing to look at “commuter rail,” but they have funded it in other areas already as part of more comprehensive transportation improvement processes that do not exist here.  Moreover, FDOT did not include the streetcar CSX insurance cost in their other deals with CSX and have said that any rail connection over the Howard Frankland would be  for locally – neither of which is very responsive.

We understand that some local politicians feel the need to praise FDOT regardless of what is happening. At any time, FDOT can decide to not do a study about expanding the streetcar or doing the transit study.  They can hold back on redoing streets around town.  We get it. But we are not local politicians; we are taxpaying citizens who vote.  And FDOT does not look very responsive to us.

Then again, as we have said many times, the biggest problem with local transportation is the failure of local officials to make a good plan, of local leaders to come together regionally to pressure FDOT.  Frankly, we expect FDOT to do what it wants as long as local officials are not willing to push for what this area really needs. (Where is the City pushing to protect the “InTown” neighborhoods?)  Inevitably, we get less than we deserve and what we get is poorly executed leaving the same problems. That is just the Tampa way.

Downtown/Channel District – An Update from the Lightning Owner

Once again this week, the Lightning owner gave an update about his project and once again showed why we like his approach so much.  First, what he said about the office portion of the project:

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said he and his Cascade Investment partners are “making good progress” on signing a tenant for half of a 650,000-square-foot office building planned for the first phase of their downtown redevelopment project.

Vinik, who hopes to land the headquarters or a regional division of a Fortune 500 company, gave no further details about the prospect’s identity during an hourlong speech Monday as part of the Thought Leaders @ The Centre Club discussion series.

“My sense is once we announce the phase one major tenant, I think dominoes are going to start falling,” he said. “An awful lot of good conversation is going on, and nothing (breeds) success like success.”

Ok.  Nothing to question there.  We look forward to some future lease activity.

The more interesting aspect of the report was about residential development:

Strategic Property Partners, the real estate company controlled by Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment LLC, is keeping a cautious eye on multifamily development in downtown Tampa.

Vinik, who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning, said Monday that multifamily projects in Tampa’s urban core may be getting ahead of demand.

It makes sense to keep an eye on this, especially if you are planning on building a lot of units.

As of March, there were 1,389 units under construction and another 2,900 in various stages of planning in downtown Tampa and the neighborhoods that ring the urban core, according to data from the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

Those figures included 500 units in the development that SPP is planning between downtown and the Channel district, though Vinik recently said the first phase alone will include 1,000 residential units.

“We worry about that,” Vinik told the Thought Leaders at Centre Club. “We think if all this comes to pass we could be overbuilt for a period of time.”

We worry about it, too, and have been concerned for a while.  While the demand will eventually grow, the pace of announcements is very much like past eras of “boom” that ended up with many unbuilt projects in a “bust” in this area, especially downtown. (In fact, the Martin about which there is a decent amount of speculation and projects in locations where there is now construction or a proposal on Harbour Island were all first proposed before the recession.)

But even if the market is overbuilt and absorption of new units slows, Vinik said he doesn’t foresee major problems with revitalization or his urban development plans.

“Over time, that will get all filled up,” Vinik said, “and you will have thousands and thousands of people living there.”

Other than street-level vibrancy, Vinik said, residential is the most important aspect of SPP’s development.

“I have been asked, what is the most important food group in our district?” Vinik said. “First I joke and say, ‘Anybody who’ll pay us,’ and after that, I say residential. I’d love to have 2,500 or 3,000 units.”

Over time, that is probably true – though it is not clear what that time period will be.  The reality is that the number of units may be large for this area (and this economy) but it is not that large in the greater scheme of things.  Though:

Vinik is not the only one who’s concerned about the development pipeline in downtown Tampa. Developments in the urban core are typically luxury projects, requiring top-of-market rents to be profitable for developers. There’s no surefire way to gauge exactly how much pent-up demand there is from affluent renters.

“There could be a squeeze at the higher end of the marketplace, potentially,” Sean Lance, principal of Vertica Partners LLC, previously told the Tampa Bay Business Journal. “No one is sure how deep that pool is.”

Which is a real point (not to mention that not every unit or every urban unit can or should be “upscale.”  There has to be something for all the other people.)

In any event, the race to get projects out of the ground has been under way for a while.  We will eventually reach a downturn and construction will stop until the downturn relents.  Then we will be back to construction.  It is the Tampa way.  Hopefully, though, the extent of downturn will not be so bad this time around.

Just remember, as we have been saying for quite some time, not every announcement will lead to an actual building.  The press releases may be frothy, but the key is what actually gets built.  Hopefully, the Lightning owner’s project, with deep pockets behind it, will move on schedule. But we are pretty sure that a number of other proposals will never get out of the ground.

— And a Note from St. Pete

Speaking of whether there is overbuilding or not, there was news this week from St. Pete:

Construction of ONE St. Petersburg, a 41-story condo tower in the heart of downtown, will start sooner than expected because of strong sales.

The Kolter Group said Monday that infrastructure and foundation work already have begun on the site at 100 1st Avenue N., which will become St. Petersburg’s tallest building and one of the tallest on Florida’s west coast.

A formal groundbreaking on the 253-unit tower and adjacent Hyatt hotel is scheduled for early next year.

The decision to speed up the timetable was prompted by more than $85 million in confirmed contracts.

From the Times – click on picture for article

Now, there is a difference between condos and rentals and a difference between Tampa and St. Pete.  Moreover, this will be the tallest building in St. Pete so it taps a special market.  Nevertheless, it shows there is potential in the market, especially with a relatively unique project.  We figure that will apply to the Lightning owner’s project, too.

Downtown/Hyde Park – Tribune Property Project Moves Forward

The City approved the first step of the Related project on the Tribune property.

The Tampa City Council gave its initial approval to a rezoning proposed by Related Development LLC of Miami to build an eight-story building on the Tribune property at 202 S Parker St., just north of the W Brorein Street bridge. The project would include a five-story parking garage with 800 spaces.

“I think it would be a wonderful addition from what we have now to what that area could be,” council member Guido Maniscalco said before the 7-0 vote.

Apparently, this Councilman has not looked at a rendering that shows the massive garage as the main face of this project to the neighborhood (and is a main feature in the view corridors).  In any event, we had no doubt that the City Council would settle for this project, particularly because of the developer and because the Council is a follower, not a leader, and, collectively, has no vision, which is made clear in comments like this:

“I like the public access along the river,” said council member Guido Maniscalco. “It’s a wonderful addition … to what this area could be.”

It’s fine to like it because it should be required.  That it is not is a sign of the City’s love of settling.

The fact is that some aspects of this project are positive – especially after changes, like adding the Riverwalk portion, were made.  However, features like putting the garage as the main connection to the neighborhood with a completely dead streetscape are really quite bad.  We know the council is not concerned, but, in a few years, the city will really come to regret allowing it, just like they do with so many projects.

We understand there was no outcry about this project, but it would be nice if the City government actually had an idea of how to build a proper urban area rather than just settling.  It should not take a large number of agitated citizens for the City to say that a dead urban streetscape is unacceptable.

Transportation – Real Bike Lanes

We have noted that the bike lanes in this area are really not very logical. We can do much better.  URBN Tampa Bay has found an article about Indianapolis’s new buffered bike lanes.  The crux:

Instead of bicyclists traveling right next to vehicle traffic, they’re now protected by parked cars.

“I’ll ride on about any road, but I have to be honest with you, it does feel a lot better riding when you know there’s a parked car on one side of you,” said Kevin Whited, the executive director of Indianapolis Bicycle Community Advocacy Group (IndyCOG).

It’s the first time the city is using this type of protected bike lane configuration.

“It’s kind of a joke amongst the bicycle community where we buffer parked cars with our bodies, because of how the bike lanes run on the outside of the parked cars, so they just flip them around and park the cars on the outside and now the parked cars are protecting the bicyclists,” said Whited.

Whited says these lanes reduce risk of injury to bicyclists by up to 90%.

And with a 90% reduction in injuries likely will come increased numbers of people biking (since they do not fear for their lives).

This all not very hard, requires no extra land, and probably not even extra paint.  Doing it any other way – like on Cleveland and Platt – is just a (dangerous) waste.  Like we have always said – if you are going to do it, do it right.  That goes for bike lanes, too.  There is really no excuse not to do it this way from now on (or to have done it in the past, really).

Coming Out Watch – A Window on Reality

We don’t usually write about store openings (with a few exceptions), but a flurry of articles about the new Restoration Hardware store caught our eye, especially this:

For Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the new store is proof that efforts to transform Tampa from a back-office hub to a knowledge-based economy are paying off. He joined Friedman for the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Tampa store.

“I think it reflects how Tampa has changed,” he said. “It’s high-end retail, high-end restaurants, high-end craft beer, a high-end food scene — it all fits. This is part of that mosaic that’s allowed us to really stand out in this state.”

Which is basically contradicted by this a few lines later:

Retailers like RH (NYSE: RH) carefully study a market before they come in, said Paul Rutledge, a first vice president with CBRE Group Inc.

The new Tampa store validates the city as a place where luxury retailers can succeed, and Rutledge said that type of endorsement is something Tampa needs. The city “doesn’t have the same sizzle” as Miami and Orlando, Rutledge said — but it’s getting there, and RH will help. 

If we do not have the “sizzle” of Orlando or Miami, are we really standing out in this state? We get that the Mayor feels he has to be a cheerleader and that there are political reasons to use a lot of hype.  On the other hand, the real estate professional is discussing actual real estate issues (and even that is probably a bit of exaggeration).  It is just an example of how the rhetoric does not match the reality.  Yes, we are making progress, but we are still behind.  (We will not even get into the average salary in our area and how most people can’t afford more of this “high-end” stuff.)

And, really, should a top 20 metro really get that excited over this?

Cuba Flights – A Question

There was an article in the Miami Herald regarding American Airlines and Cuba flights that had this nugget:

The State Department has been very reluctant to put a timetable on this. How about you? What is American planning for in terms of regular service to Cuba?

We’re highly optimistic that we will be serving Cuba with scheduled service next year sometime.

American has charter flights from Tampa and Miami (and will be adding Los Angeles).  We wonder if, if and when they go to scheduled service, will the Tampa flights remain or will passengers be funneled through Miami?  (This is where the local politics and the needs of the area intersect.  Will all the members of the Aviation Authority board go all in to keep the service?  How about getting a good connection to Cuba at the Port?)

It reminded us of a map we saw in the American Airlines Spanish language in-flight magazine:

From American Airlines – click on map for a larger version

We see those Latin American gateways Spokane and Yakima, but where is Tampa?

List of the Week

There is no list this week.

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