Getting a Tampa city planning do-over

click to enlarge Turning back the clock: A century-old view of Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, shown on a vintage post card. - Courtesy Of Grant Rimbey
Courtesy Of Grant Rimbey
Turning back the clock: A century-old view of Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, shown on a vintage post card.

As I read Grant Rimbey's piece on discovering legendary planner John Nolen's 1924 survey of Tampa, I flashed to what Nolen told city leaders back in the day:

"Co-operation will be needed between the city and county governments, the school districts, the realtors, the owners of the land, business interests, and citizens. Enlightening publicity will be required to present all details of the city plan to the public and obtain the citizens' approval for each change made in the future."

Boy, where is John Nolen when you need him? (Answer: He died in 1937.)

As Rimbey's accompanying story illustrates, you have to have good planning and a commitment by a city to create its future rather than be led around willy-nilly by forces that may not have the public's best interests at heart. The very same issues that 1920s Tampa Bay faced (a real estate boom, its aftermath and a lack of vision) remain issues today.

Over the past two decades, anyone living in Tampa has seen several planning efforts either fall apart (Committee of 99 and its transportation improvements a decade ago) or come to a conclusion, only to have its results sit on a dusty shelf in a pretty binder. We've seen high profile planning exercises, such as the Legos of the One Bay movement. The problem with Tampa, public officials and planners used to tell me when I was on the daily newspaper government beat, isn't that it lacks a plan, its that it has too many of them that were never followed.

And the redevelopment opportunities remain.

Look at West Tampa, for example. As I wrote about for a cover story three years ago, the neighborhood is ripe for a rethinking and rebirth. It has an urban street grid, with alleyways, that would allow for European-style 3- to 4-story buildings along its major streets. Send growth there instead of sending it out past Riverview in southern Hillsborough County.

But that has not, and is not, happening, despite some activists' and builders' fervent hopes.

But Tampa — and all of Tampa Bay, for that matter — has a shot at a do-over, in the guise of our decisions in 2010 on whether to fund and create a new transportation system.

The referenda — for sure in Hillsborough County, less certain in Pinellas County at this point — are about more than just how many billions of dollars we are going to spend for rail transit systems that will never pay for themselves. They are about planning. They give us the ability to reshape our cities, our region, and to give us better neighborhoods, with more businesses within walking distance of our homes, more jobs that don't require us to make a 45-minute drive across the Howard Frankland Bridge twice a day.

These new transportation systems — the buses, too, not just the trains — give us a chance to reshape urban areas by increasing densities at transit stops and hubs. Higher densities and neighborhood support don't necessarily go hand-in-hand, at least until our politicians begin making the case that it will improve, not destroy neighborhoods. Only the most diehard "I only want single-family homes, 65-foot-wide lots and plenty of auto traffic in my neighborhood" types will object once they realize what the possibilities for change are.

Think about it: you can walk to a pub, have a few beers and walk home, avoiding any chance of getting a DUI. You can reconnect with your neighbors at a restaurant a block over instead of driving miles and miles to a faceless chain where you don't know a soul other than the folks you dragged with you. New parks to visit, to let dogs frolic, to have your children feel safe.

Nolen said "enlightening publicity" is needed to make a town plan work. How many public officials are ready to start talking about the next phase of what solving our transportation problems really means? How many are ready to get Tampa residents, and others throughout Tampa Bay, excited about the possibility? Raise your hands. Better yet, start talking with your constituents. Loudly.

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