Transforming Tampa Bay: Pave less, prosper more

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click to enlarge Candice Pulli at Clayton Gray Home, one of the shops that are helping to make Kennedy less of a racetrack and more of a boulevard. - Linda Saul-Sena
Linda Saul-Sena
Candice Pulli at Clayton Gray Home, one of the shops that are helping to make Kennedy less of a racetrack and more of a boulevard.

No one has ever accused a fast food restaurant or a drugstore chain of contributing charm to the public’s design conversation. These utilitarian structures tend to take up whole blocks, with lots of paving to accommodate drive-through functions and parking.

The old-fashioned pattern of long, narrow storefronts strung together close to the sidewalk is much more interesting to observe. Variety is the spice of shopping, and fortunately, both St. Petersburg and Tampa have streets such as Central and MacDill avenues enjoying a retail renaissance.

Two inspired young urban planners -— Chuck Marohn and Jim Kumon — have taken up the cause of promoting this pattern of urban redevelopment, barnstorming around America under the banner of “Strong Towns.” Their novel approach to directing healthier communities is to focus on the economics of growth — where we, the public, will get the most ROI.

“The challenge of this next generation is not going to be growth. We’ve had decades of growth and it hasn’t given us prosperity. The challenge of the next generation is going to be, how do we go back and make really productive use of all this stuff that we’ve built,” says Marohn, Strong Towns’ president and founder.

The answer, he believes, is not more roads or interstates. Rather, he thinks that we should create vibrant areas by filling in the surface parking lots with activity and investment. The Strong Towns website demonstrates the financial rewards of people-oriented (as opposed to car-oriented) development.

We see that several small stores throw off more local taxes and circulate revenues more energetically in the local economy than one bigger box franchise on the same land. Since land is a fixed commodity, where the public has already invested in sewers, sidewalks, water, and pubic safety, it is much more conservative (in the original sense of the word) to make the most of what’s there instead of spending, say, $6 million for a Bass Pro Shop in a wetland.

The Strong Towns guys have boiled their concerns down to three ideas:

1) The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.

2) The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.

3) The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.

Both Tampa and St. Pete are graced with savvy city councils and mayors, so the challenge here is on the community level. Can we get the suburbanites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to understand that we must change our development patterns and invest in transportation choices?

Local planner Stephen Benson explains, “Throughout recent history, we have been far too dependent on leapfrog suburban development which requires costly new infrastructure and utilities, creating a perpetual drain on limited public resources. We know that good development creates lasting value — both in increased tax revenue and improved quality of life.

“Our community needs to get to the point where redevelopment and infill in our existing urban areas is so easy and worry-free for the development community that the pressure to grow outward is less overbearing. True smart growth is a balance between urban infill projects and strategic outward expansion.”

Since appealing to folks’ pocketbooks seems successful, the arguments made by Strong Towns should be compelling: Save revenue and create more financially secure communities by not building more sprawl.

The Strong Towns podcasts are provocative. Certainly the most novel argument I’ve encountered for not drinking and driving is this radical concept: that local laws be amended to say “No liquor licenses unless a location is served by public transportation. No transit, no booze. A drunk pedestrian is less of a threat to society than a drunk driver! Strong Towns asserts that ‘drunk driving is a design problem.’”

Recently, Jim Kumon visited Tampa Bay, chatted at Buddy Brew with local members of the Congress for New Urbanism/Tampa Bay, and observed the comeback of that part of Kennedy Boulevard. He saw the redo of small businesses as a good sign and hoped that Kennedy could become less of a racetrack and more of a boulevard.

Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Beth Alden observes, “Better design can help us create corridors which serve multiple needs better. Fowler Avenue, which has a 120-foot right-of-way, could be redesigned for through traffic, cyclists, shoppers and transit users. It could be safer and more attractive and efficient.”

A dream borne of inhaling too many exhaust fumes? Hopefully, we’ll get smarter and more strategic in our communities, listening to smart insiders and visitors who recognize the limitations of our fiscal resources and the breadth of our imaginations.

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