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Roundup 8-10-2018

August 9, 2018

Yes, we had to post this a little early this week.

Contents

Transportation – All Over

— Referendum: Let the Games Begin

— It Still Is What We Thought It Was

— One More Thing

— Brightline

— Airport and Transit

— HART

— Ferry Stuff

Downtown/Channel District/Built Environment – The Storage Battle Continues

Downtown/Channel District – Water Street Stuff

Downtown – Riverwalk Place

Economy – Property Values

USF – Honors

Courting Trouble

______________________________________________


Transportation – All Over


— Referendum: Let the Games Begin

This week the Supervisor of Elections confirmed that the transit referendum qualified for the ballot.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections confirmed Wednesday that the citizen’s group All for Transportation surpassed the roughly 49,000 signatures needed to get a transportation initiative on the general election ballot. Voters will be asked in about 90 days, on Nov. 6, to approve a one-penny county sales tax hike, from seven cents on the dollar to eight cents, for a 30-year period beginning in 2019.

The normal sides can be expected to line up for and against the referendum.  The usual arguments will play out.  We are sure it will be interesting.

Also interesting to us is from where the signatures for the petition came:

All for Transportation took advantage of a rarely used process known as charter amendment by petition to get the initiative on the ballot if petitions are signed by the equivalent of more than 8 percent of the voters in the most recent general election.

* * *

The highest level of support was in County Commission District 3, which includes much of Tampa and northern Hillsborough. The petition also exceeded the 8 percent threshold in District 4, far eastern and southern Hillsborough, but not in District 1, from south Tampa north to Odessa, or District 2, stretching from Brandon across the far northern county.

Just to help understand, here is a map of the districts:

From the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections – click on map for pdf

South County got a decent percentage and outdid, by percentage, South Tampa/Town and Country.  That is a bit surprising.

We will have more to say about the referendum as we get closer to the election.  But we will say this: if supporters want to succeed, they need to ramp up outreach to the county, especially the near-in areas, quickly.


– It Still Is What We Thought It Was

Since the unveiling of the regional Transit Study “BRT” plan (actually a few days before, like here), we have been told that the plan is good, and better than other transit ideas (light real, real BRT, etc), because it is a bargain.  In other words, it is cheap. Never mind that it runs on the interstate. Never mind the lack of TOD opportunities (yes, they are trying to retrofit some but they will still be limited).  Never mind that it does not serve the biggest needs identified by the study whence it came.  It is a bargain that “leverages” FDOT highway money.

But there has been one thing that has troubled even many supporters of the plan: the lack of dedicated lanes.  The original plan used a combination of buses in regular traffic, on shoulders (not a best practice), on a small stretch of dedicated lanes, and in express lanes.  But, as we quoted a few weeks ago, there is a feeling that:

“We cannot afford to do this unless we have a dedicated lane all the way through,” Galvano said during a presentation. “That’s what thinking in the future is about.”

* * *

The dedicated lanes are necessary to create a quick and efficient route and to make way for future technologies that would require a designated right-of-way.

Setting aside the apparent desire to dismantle system relatively soon after it is built, the point is still accurate – and not in the plans.  Which brings us to an opinion piece from the Times this week:

But cut rate won’t cut it if we go ahead with the area’s proposed bus rapid transit system. We need to do it right. Watered down equals don’t bother.

Setting aside that we do not think the author means that BRT should be in dedicated lanes on arterial roads (though that is actually doing it right), that is true.

The 41-mile project, which would run along the interstate from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg, can’t be an incremental improvement to an anemic transit system. It should be transformative, a catalyst for creating an integrated transportation network.

If being transformative and catalyzing is actually the goal (which it wasn’t – the goal was to find something cheap. see “Transportation – It Is What We Thought It Was — A Question” ), they should have picked another project, but anyway:

Doing it right starts with dedicated BRT lanes. Without them, it hardly seems worth building. The system wouldn’t be able to live up to the “rapid” part of its name.

* * *

Dedicated lanes “are essential to creating a service that people will value,” said Whit Blanton, head of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency. “(They) provide a more reliable trip than driving, and would allow transit to be competitive in terms of travel time.”

* * *

The original plan, unveiled in January, called for the buses to mingle with regular traffic on long stretches of the route. That would have slowed them down too often.

* * *

Several regional leaders have pushed for more dedicated lanes. At a minimum they want BRT lanes along the 31 miles from Pinellas to northern Hillsborough. More dedicated lanes will inflate the $455 million price tag, though it’s unclear by how much.

The Howard Frankland might not get dedicated lanes. Instead, the buses could share 11 miles of managed toll lanes being built as part of the massive interstate overhaul called Tampa Bay Next. The toll prices rise with congestion. In theory, higher tolls discourage too many drivers from entering the two lanes, allowing vehicles to maintain at least 45 mph.

Of course, having truly dedicated lanes (not just using the shoulder) would take away the advantages of “leveraging” FDOT’s interstate expansion. In fact, it would just to the cost of it. (Hopefully, the study was done properly and really compared potential plans before coming to a conclusion.  If so, the cost of having dedicated lanes along that stretch will already be readily available.)  Meaning:

There’s a chance costs will get too high. But cutting back by forgoing dedicated lanes would doom the system before the first bus rolled out.

(That is why we should not pretend this is a transformative project or the main transit need, save money by building a normal express bus for distant commuters, and focus on our real transit needs.)  But anyway:

Michael Case, interim executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority also wants to explore adding dedicated BRT lanes to the bridge.

“But if the cost of building dedicated lanes on the Howard Frankland increases the overall cost to a point where the system is no longer competitive for federal funding, I think the system could still operate efficiently using the managed toll lanes,” he said.

North of Bearss Avenue to Interstate 75, the buses are supposed to share existing lanes with cars, a stretch that generally doesn’t get as congested. Forgoing dedicated lanes there will help keep overall costs down, but could be short-sighted. Pasco County’s population is expected to explode in coming years, adding a lot more drivers.

“If we don’t include those dedicated lanes, five years from now we are going to look back and hit ourselves on the forehead and say, ‘Why didn’t we take care of this when we had a chance to do it,’ ” Homans said. “This is a chance to stay ahead of the trend.”

Well, this plan is already behind the trend and the times.  Frankly, running on the highway is short-sighted.  But we knew that.  In any event, there is more:

The buses also need easy access to the stations. They can’t get stuck at traffic lights or caught on congested off ramps. And they can’t meander too far from the route’s main spine. Pinching pennies in these areas will hamstring the system.

The plan includes running the buses on the interstate shoulder. That’s fine, as long as there’s enough in the budget to widen and redesign the lanes to allow buses to move quickly, and to maneuver around broken-down vehicles. They also can’t slow down at every vehicle off ramp. That will require spending enough money to run much of the dedicated lanes along the median, where they won’t run into cars getting on and off the interstate.

All of which we have discussed previously and agree with.  It is also acknowledging that the “BRT” plan is nowhere near a “gold standard” plan.

And it means that, if the “BRT” plan is changed to do actually BRT properly (aside from getting it off the interstate), the cost could (read “will”) get above of the magical number.  It also means that having a proper BRT line, even on the interstate (where it should not be as you can see in this video), is not such a value and very well may not “beat” all other possible transit projects.  If there is now the intention to do it right, there would have to be a completely new analysis.

The fact is that the proposed “BRT” line was always not going to be a proper BRT line (aside from the interstate aspect) because the entire premise was using interstate expansion, which was cutting corners.  As we have said from the beginning, the proposed “BRT” line is really just a very expensive express bus plan.  And there is no justification to pay that much for (or invest so much hope and rhetoric in) an express bus line.

The design consultants are still massaging Tampa Bay’s plan. They are speaking with community groups to help improve the concept. They expect to release the next report before the new year.

And every real improvement they will propose increases the cost and renders the original basis (and sole real merit) of the “BRT” plan less valid.  Once again, go cheap on the express bus plan and then work on a real transit system that is built properly and addresses the real needs of this area.

— One More Thing

One final note, about those express lanes FDOT wants to build:

The Howard Frankland might not get dedicated lanes. Instead, the buses could share 11 miles of managed toll lanes being built as part of the massive interstate overhaul called Tampa Bay Next. The toll prices rise with congestion. In theory, higher tolls discourage too many drivers from entering the two lanes, allowing vehicles to maintain at least 45 mph.

* * *

Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans has advocated for dedicated lanes along the entire route, including the Howard Frankland. He worries political leaders will feel pressured to keep the tolls low, which will add too many cars to the toll lanes, slowing down the buses.

They will feel pressured because everyone wants relief from congestion, but variable rate express lanes just create capacity then artificially limit it and call it congestion relief. The traffic does not magically disappear. If the congestion is not in the express lane, it will be in other lanes where the vast majority of people will get no relief.


— Brightline

While the proposals to the state RFP are not even due for a few months, Brightline is already looking for a station site in Tampa.

Among the sites that have caught the interest of Brightline are Tampa Union Station, Tampa Park Apartments and the old jail site on North Morgan Street, officials said.

That could put a new rail terminus within walking distance of a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark proposed for Ybor City. And with Brightline subsidizing railroad cost by cashing in on development around stations, it could make the area just north of the Channel District a potential new hub of downtown’s expansion.

All of that makes sense.  We have said that a downtown Tampa to Orlando airport route is not really what we (or anyone looking for real intercity rail) would want, though the fact that the line would go to south Florida (assuming Martin and Indian River Counties don’t manage to kill it) mitigates that a bit.  But we figured Brightline would look downtown (and that the City would probably point them in that direction).

Tampa Park Apartments is owned by a nonprofit group that is led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. Other officers of the nonprofit corporation include James Harrell, former president of the Local No. 1402 of the International Longshoremen’s Union.

* * *

The old jail site on Morgan Street has already had two brief flirtations with rail. It was considered a potential station site for a cross-bay rail network between Tampa and St. Petersburg that state officials briefly floated in 2007. That happened again in 2010 when City of Tampa officials talked about a high-speed rail system between Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando that would be completed by 2015. It is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Tampa Union Station was originally built in 1912 to serve the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line and the Tampa Northern Railroad. It was restored and reopened in 1998. It is served by Amtrak’s Silver Service between New York and Miami. It is owned by the city of Tampa.

Tampa Park actually is very close to Union Station.  And they are both relatively close to the proposed stadium site. Neither is directly on the streetcar line (the apartments are quite close) but could be on a CSX line light rail (neither would not be close to the proposed “BRT” line) were one ever to be built.  The old jail site is on the other side of Encore and would be near an expanded streetcar (and a bit closer to the proposed “BRT” line).  Even better, it would be served by a drive-through Burger King, thanks to the City’s excellent planning, and maybe even some self-storage, see below.


In sum, the path to Orlando airport rather than Orlando is not optimal for the Tampa Bay area. Regarding stations, it seems clear that downtown is where Brightline wants the station (which was predictable).    If it has to be downtown, we would prefer the apartments or Union Station.  Of course, while it seems likely, we don’t even know if Brightline will be the choice to build the rail line.  We will have to wait and see.


— Airport and Transit

That brings us to an interesting article in the Business Journal regarding the airport and transit.

All Aboard Florida is seeking to build an intercity passenger rail system that would connect from the Orlando International Airport into Tampa, and one of the potential sites may be at Tampa International Airport.

It may be. Maybe it should be. But it probably isn’t.  Nevertheless, we’ll still see where this leads.

Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano is a big advocate of transit and sees this as an opportunity, whether the rail line connects directly into the airport or elsewhere.

“We are very pro-transit at the airport. We are looking for more options for our customers because we are going to double our passenger growth in the next 20 to 30 years, and I don’t see the opportunity to move these people to our beaches or our downtown without a lot of congestion unless something changes,” Lopano told the Tampa Bay Business Journal during an interview in his office. He stated that Brightline has not yet communicated with the airport regarding a possible connection.

* * *

“When we designed the rental car center in the master plan, we left it flexible enough so that we would have options,” Lopano said.

“The design of the rental car center is flexible enough that it could accept a light rail line that wanted to stop at the airport. We left that right of way open. We just don’t know what the community wants — if it’s light rail, bus rapid transit, Ubers or Lyfts, we have that ability.”

That was very forward thinking. If only the rest of the area was as forward thinking as the airport, especially regarding infrastructure.  On the other hand, the “BRT” plan does not go to the airport and, while a CSX based system could access the airport quite easily from some directions, there is no CSX light rail plan.

But what of Brightline?

There may be opportunities for a train operator to lease space in the SkyCenter building, which will be connected to the rental car center via a walkway, but the master plan doesn’t envision a station at the exact site.

“We don’t envision a station there, but we do have plans for commercial real estate. I do know that FDOT has plans for a multimodal center that would be down by 275 near Charley’s Steak House,” Lopano said, referring to the proposed Westshore Regional Multimodal Center.

“[FDOT] purchased the hotel and the land and at some point will build a multimodal center there, which I would imagine would be connected to the airport very nicely,” he said.

We doubt Brightline is going to the planned Westshore multimodal center (though the “BRT” plan would), but the center could be connected to the airport.  Of course, if Brightline ends downtown, getting to and from the airport becomes more complicated.  At least, the airport is trying to plan.


— HART

Last week, we discussed the County Commission agreeing to give HART a small amount of extra funding on condition that HART conducted a national search for a new director.

Board members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority voted Monday to begin a nationwide search for a new chief operating officer.

But that search will not include Jeff Seward, who has served as the agency’s interim CEO since December.

Interestingly,

The search for a new leader comes at a critical point for both the agency and the future of transportation in Hillsborough. If successful, a citizen-led ballot initiative to raise sales tax for transportation would increase HART’s annual budget from $70 million to about $200 million in 2019.

Frankly, it is an odd time to search for a new CEO.  Potential applicants do not know if they are applying to lead a chronically underfunded agency or one (contingent on the referendum) with a decent budget and mandate to develop a decent transit system.  It is very possible that such a situation will definitely cause some very qualified candidates to not apply.  Maybe HART should hold off until they know what their situation is.


— Ferry Stuff

There was a little ferry news:

St. Petersburg City Council is the first government board to officially sign off on all of its pieces necessary to bring the Cross Bay Ferry back this November.

Which was expected, as are quotes like this:

“The overall strategy is to offer people options,” said Evan Mory, the city’s director of transportation and parking management. “This allows people to get around in another way … it is true transportation.”

While, yes, the ferry is transportation, so is a Big Wheel.  We’ll say it again – the Cross Bay Ferry is a fun/tourist cruise, not transit.  For now, it is fine for what it is at the cost it is.

So, now that the fun cruise seems to be on track, what about the actual transit ferry between MacDill and South county?

If the long-awaited commuter ferry service between south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base ever happens, it will likely be without federal money.

Leaders of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority acknowledged Monday that project delays means they will lose a $4.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority.

To qualify, construction of the service needed to start by September 2019. But the county has yet to decide where to build a ferry terminal in South Hillsborough. The delay is partly due to federal red tape that came with the money, including a mandatory environmental impact study that would have taken up to two years.

The grant, which U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, helped secure, was announced with much fanfare in 2014. The money was awarded to HART and earmarked for construction of a launch site.

That delay is actually on the Port, which objected to one location due to vaguely described issues of port traffic/safety (as though other, larger ports don’t have ferry traffic to contend with), and the County Commission, which has been unable to approve a location (which is not surprising, even given their supportive rhetoric).

Its return has some HART officials fearing that the bus agency’s reputation has been damaged.

As recently as last summer, HART and county officials told federal officials the project was still on track, said interim HART CEO Jeff Seward.

“It was made explicitly clear at that time that HART is 100 percent accountable for use and non-use of the funds and the success of the project,” Seward told the HART board Monday. “No other government entity bears that burden.”

Now HART will have to write to the federal agency to report that it cannot meet the deadlines. It may struggle to win future grants as a result, said HART board member Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman and former chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush. 

What HART should be really embarrassed about is that it took responsibility for anything the County Commission is supposed do regarding transportation.

County commissioners who attended the HART meeting said Monday that the project will still move forward without the federal money. Commissioners in 2017 set aside $22 million from the BP oil spill settlement for the project. Under the county’s agreement, it will pay capital costs, including ferry terminals and the purchase of the boats, and its partners will pay for the service’s operating costs.

In February, commissioners approved spending $750,000 on a study to begin the process of creating a route.

Well, imagine that, the County Commission has so much cash lying around that they can waste about $5 million.  We never stop being amazed at their ability to conjure cash when they want to.


Downtown/Channel District/Built Environment – The Storage Battle Continues

As regular readers will know, there has been a move to make it easier to build self-storage units and facilities in urban areas.  The move was inexplicably put forward by the City Council.  From URBN Tampa Bay, which explains it well:

Next Monday the Hillsborough Planning Commission will consider a zoning code text amendment that would make it easier to develop air conditioned storage units in Downtown by doing two main things:

1. Bypass the city council for proposals with storage uses.
2. Make it so storage units could be paired with other uses besides residential.

The amendment would also increase parking minimums for said uses in the Channel District among other regulations regarding the use.

Currently, to develop storage units in Downtown city council approval is required. This amendment would take away that requirement and make it so storage units are an “allowable use by right” in Downtown.

We find this unacceptable. Storage units are industrial uses, just like warehouses, and therefore belong in industrial areas. In no way would storage unit projects contribute to a vibrant live, work, play environment in Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. Storage units shouldn’t be taking up valuable, finite land in Downtown.

We believe the effort is being spearheaded by developers who wish to build storage projects throughout Downtown for profit at the expense of the neighborhood. It’s not a coincidence that two such projects are currently proposed for 1307 North Jefferson Street and 111 North Meridian Ave.

The original proposal for this text amendment was even worse. Originally the amendment was going to allow single-use storage unit projects. Today, a storage unit project must be part of a residential project to be allowed, and the storage aspect cannot be more then 40% of the square footage of the project. This amendment would modify that requirement so that the other use could be something other then residential (ex. office).

The city council should still have a say on projects with storage unit aspects, and taxpayers should still get to voice their opinion at a quasi-judicial hearing for this use. It should be made harder to develop storage units in Downtown, not easier.

You can get the whole packet here.

We agree with URBN Tampa Bay.  This proposal is better than before, but we still oppose it.  The City Council definitely should have a say.

Moreover, while the proposal limits construction of such projects to north of Harrison, Harrison is not some magical line where downtown ends, especially now that Tampa Heights/North Franklin is starting to really develop. (And nothing says honoring Central Avenue history like self-storage.) Are drive through fast food, 18 lane highways, and self-storage really what City Council really wants for the urban core?

The staff recommends adopting this regulation.  We recommend rejecting it. Self-storage is not something the City should be promoting in non-industrial areas.

This is the meeting info:

August 13, 2018 – 3:00 p.m.
Planning Commission Boardroom
601 East Kennedy Boulevard, 18th Floor


Downtown/Channel District – Water Street Stuff

There was news about Water Street this week:

Tampa City Council on Thursday will vote on public hearing dates for a development agreement with Strategic Property Partners, the developer of Water Street. The hearing dates in the resolution are Aug. 23 and Sept. 6.

Water Street is the $3 billion, mixed-use development between the central business district and Channel district waterfront. It spans more than 50 acres and will be more than 9 million square feet at full buildout.

The development agreement covers the portion of the project between Channelside Drive and Cumberland Avenue — 1.15 million square feet of office space, 215,000 square feet of retail, 1,030 multifamily residential units and 190 hotel rooms.

What does that really mean?

“The agreement effectively allows us to vest development entitlements for this portion of the development upon pre-payment of required multimodal transportation impact fees,” Ali Glisson, a spokeswoman for SPP, said Monday.

“These numbers only account for the maximum development planned for projects not already approved by the city of Tampa. It does not account for the JW Marriott or 815 Water Street — nor does it account for the improvements planned for the Marriott Waterside Hotel and Sparkman Wharf.”    

Well, that clarifies it.

In further news, there are some filings regarding the Edition hotel and condo building.  First, from URBN Tampa Bay:

The building is 318 feet tall. The project features 173 hotel rooms, 46 condos, a 2,781 square foot bar, and 170 parking spaces. 93 parking spaces were required.

There are also some renderings:

 

From Florida Future at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post

 

From Florida Future at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post

And a site plan:

From Florida Future at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post

We really like the idea of this building, and the ground floor layout seems relatively good (though it could use a real awning). However, the recent renderings of the building (as opposed to the original snippets from a few months ago) look a little clunky.  The hotel portion (the podium) is fine, but the tower seems to sit a bit oddly. And the alternating balconies are a bit of a gamble.  They could be very cool and interesting or they could look like ill-fitting Legos stacked on each other.  We hope the former.  It is entirely possible that the renderings just do not accurately represent the reality and the design will grow on us.  Luckily, even if it doesn’t, the building should just be one of many in the neighborhood.


Downtown – Riverwalk Place

Some pictures of the model of Riverwalk Place in the new sales office have been making the rounds.  Here is a couple

From Bueller at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post

 

From Bueller at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post

You can see more here. (See also Bueller’s Flikr account here)

The first thing you notice is that the main building is very blue and the parking garage is very brown.  We doubt those will be the exact colors. We are still not that fond of the garage sticking out the side of the tower like it does, but the glass area on the bottom of the garage immediately on the Riverwalk does minimize some of the less pleasant parts of the garage appearance. You can also see that the roof of the tower is far flatter than the rendering implies (namely because renderings are notoriously inaccurate, especially about height).

Overall, we think the building looks quite good (and we like the apparent deck around the 20th or 21st floor).  Hopefully, it actually does start construction early next year.


Economy – Property Values

There was interesting news about property values.

In further proof of Tampa Bay’s red hot real estate market, the total value of taxable property in the region is projected to rise at or near double digit rates this year.

The result will likely be a small windfall for local government agencies as they prepare their last budgets before an increase in the homestead exemption goes to voters in a November referendum.

Estimates by property appraiser offices show that taxable values — the total value of property minus homestead and other exemptions — are up roughly 10 percent in unincorporated Hillsborough County, the biggest increase since the real estate market crashed around 2007.

Projections are equally bright for the region’s two biggest cities, with the taxable value of property rising by 10.4 percent in Tampa and 9.5 percent in St. Petersburg. Taxable values are also up about 8.5 percent in Pasco County and Pinellas County.

Which is good, as long as it is sustainable and not a bubble.  But anyway,

Higher taxable values mean property owners will pay more in taxes even if local governments keep the same tax rates.

* * *

In Tampa, the increase in values will mean an extra $18.4 million in property tax revenues. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has not yet decided how to spend the extra money, said Sonya Little, Tampa’s chief financial officer.

First, the Mayor is not the only one who has to decide how to spend it.  Second, we suggest the City spend none of it right now. We suggest saving it to help make the upcoming debt payments and leave the next mayor with more latitude when that mayor gets into office.

For example, based on 2017 tax rates, Hillsborough County would collect an extra $45 million for its general fund and about $20.1 million for services like water, sewer, road maintenance and trash pickup in the unincorporated areas.

“We haven’t seen those levels since 2008,” Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said. “We don’t believe that’s sustainable at all over the long run.”

Assume it is not sustainable.  If you get pleasantly surprised, so be it.

But mindful of a potential increase in the homestead exemption, which would cost Hillsborough more than $30 million per year, the focus is on one-time expenditures that the county is not committed to continuing.

“We were glad for the ability to do additional programs,” Merrill said. “But we can’t plan on funding those on a recurring basis because of the uncertainty.”

There is also that.  We suggest generally, if there is debt, pay it off.  If there isn’t, find really useful, one time projects or save the money for a rainy day.  Just because you have a one-time windfall does not mean you have to spend it right away.


USF – Honors

USF recently received “preeminent” status,” which is good, especially as it provides the opportunity to get more state money.   Last week, there was more news:

The University of South Florida has notched another achievement on its way to national recognition.

The school on Friday was awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious national honor society. It joins six other Florida schools with the same honor — Eckerd College, Florida International University, Florida State University, Stetson University, the University of Florida and University of Miami.

To be honest, we did not know that there was no Phi Beta Kappa at USF.  And it is good that there now is one, if just so graduates can add it to their resumes.  But this:

[USF provost Ralph] Wilcox called the society “reserved for the crème de la crème of private and public universities across the United States.”

May be a slight overstatement when you consider some of the other schools listed above or here. (note that FIU opened in 1972)

Setting aside the rhetoric, once again, we are happy for USF students who can become members.

USF’s next target in its quest for prestige: membership in the Association of American Universities, a selective collection of 62 institutions. Each of those schools has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

That organization’s membership list is here.  That is a worthy target.


Courting Trouble

There was an interesting article in the Times regarding one of less discussed public facilities in our area:

The bullet pierced a third-floor window and blew glass shards over a desk and chairs. A security officer noticed spiderweb cracks in the pane when he arrived at work on Memorial Day.

In a report, police described the location as an “empty school building.” But the Stetson Tampa Law Center, near downtown, isn’t only a law school building. It’s the de facto home base of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Had Florida appellate Judge Daniel H. Sleet been at his desk, he could have been shot in the head, a fellow judge concluded.

The stray round, assumed to be the product of celebratory gunfire, underscores a persistent problem that has frustrated the court’s 16 judges: They are a court with no secure courthouse, only leased offices at Stetson.

That does not sound good. Why are they there?

Their old facility — a crumbling, mold-plagued structure in Lakeland — became uninhabitable in 2016. Since then, judges have operated almost entirely out of the Stetson building, a satellite campus of the university’s Gulfport-based College of Law.

It is where they hear oral arguments, and it is where they cram into offices that in some cases are not much bigger than college dorm rooms. The DCA doesn’t control access or the perimeter of the building.

There is more historical background in the article but in short:

The 2nd DCA was established in the mid-1950s as one of three state appellate courts.

Back then, Polk County sat near the geographic center of the district, which stretched from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale, and from Brooksville to Naples.

Having a courthouse in Lakeland made sense at the time. However:

Today, the state has five appellate courts, which consider appeals from the trial courts in their respective districts. The 2nd District encompasses 14 counties in southwest Florida, from Pasco to Collier, and receives about 6,000 new cases per year.

* * *

About half of the court’s cases come from Hillsborough or Pinellas. Only 13 percent come from Polk.

* * *

Of the court’s 16 judges, only one lives in Polk County. Another lives in Manatee County. All the rest live in either Hillsborough or Pinellas.

Most of the court’s employees — including judicial assistants, staff attorneys, clerks, and administrative staff — also live in the areas closest to Tampa Bay, the study found. About one-third live in Polk County.

Given those numbers, it is logical that they want a secure facility in Tampa.  If the courthouse is in Lakeland, the vast majority of the lawyers, judges, and staff would have to drive I-4 to Lakeland on the edge of the district.  Moreover:

Two years ago, the Legislature commissioned a $100,000 study of the court’s location and space needs. The study, completed by the National Center for State Courts and a commercial real estate firm, examined population growth trends, case load statistics and staffing numbers.

Among its conclusions: The court should consolidate into a single courthouse in either Tampa or St. Petersburg.

Given all that and that all the other appellate courts have proper buildings, why doesn’t the one in our area?  First,

State law requires the court to maintain its headquarters in Lakeland — and, technically, it still does. The court’s clerk works there, out of leased office space, along with about 33 other employees. Two judges keep offices in both locations.

Second,

State Sen. Kelli Stargel, whose legislative district includes Lakeland, opposes the court leaving Polk County. It has been headquartered in her community for more than a half-century. And, she said, it brings jobs to the area.

“I haven’t seen a compelling reason why having a courthouse in Tampa meets the needs of the public any more than having a courthouse in Lakeland,” the Republican lawmaker said.

As the article points out, Lakeland is not where the cases are, and it is even further away from all the counties to the south that are in the district. Here is a map:

From the Florida Courts website – click on map for website

Stargel noted that the cost to build in downtown Tampa would be more expensive than in Lakeland.

The 2016 study put the price range for a new courthouse in Tampa at $32 million to $33 million. That doesn’t include land acquisition, which could drive the cost above $40 million.

* * *

Stargel said she has proposed two potential sites in Polk County, without success.

“It seems as though the only thing the 2nd DCA would be open to is moving to downtown Tampa,” she said. “That is what the impasse has been. If we’re going to build a new courthouse, I want to be fiscally responsible in how we do it.”

The article does not tell us the difference in price for the building itself or land acquisition between Tampa and Lakeland.

Interestingly, the new Fourth DCA Courthouse (see here) was built on land the state already owned.  There is a surface parking lot next to the state building in downtown Tampa, plus a number of other large parcels in the area.   The City also has land (which it keeps trying to sell) and so does the County. (There is also land in Tampa Heights.) We are not arguing for any specific parcel, but there are ways to reduce costs.  And comparisons with the costs past projects have to be done properly noting that construction costs have increased and will likely continue to do so.

The bottom line is that the article makes a pretty good case that a secure building is needed and that it should be in Tampa or St. Pete.  The court (and largest legal community) is already in Tampa, so Tampa makes sense.  Public institutions should have proper buildings. (And we don’t mean crazy buildings like the “Taj Mahal” in Tallahassee ) That is not a waste of money (just like the not full-time Florida Legislature meeting in the Capitol rather than a high school auditorium is not a waste).  It is an issue that could be worked out if our elected officials wanted to.

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