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Building for the Future: Tampa then, now and what's to come

A population boom is coming
Full Circle Tampa Bay Hotel 1893.png
Posted at 7:07 AM, Apr 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-21 18:34:56-04

TAMPA, Fla. — A photo taken from the top of a minaret at the former Tampa Bay Hotel is now hanging in the Henry B. Plant Museum. The panoramic image from 1893 is a glimpse into a lonely and empty skyline showing wooden homes in the background and a single bridge crossing over a meandering Hillsborough River. Tampa is a blank slate.

That single image inspired this report for Earth Week. The Plant Museum granted ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska and photojournalist Reed Moeller rare access to one of their towering iconic minarets to capture the same image with today's modern skyline in the distance.

Ten stories up, facing the east, it wasn't hard to see how far we've come. The question urban planners across the region and right here in Tampa are now trying to answer: What will the city look like in another 130-plus years?

This report focuses on several key areas: traffic, smart urban growth, adapting to our changing climate, protecting wild places, and making cities walkable.

SCIENTISTS FOR THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

According to data provided to ABC Action News by the Bureau of Economic Business Research at the University of Florida, Hillsborough County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, outpacing Miami-Dade, Lee, and Palm Beach.

Hillsborough County is estimated to increase in population by 485,700 by 2050.

"Tampa is the heart of the region, so everybody wants to be here," Stephen Benson, Director of City Planning, said. "And, we're kind of at a pivotal moment right now. Over the last several years, the last few new subdivisions and New Tampa have been built out and completed. And so now we're shifting from a mix of redeveloping our existing areas and new development to just redeveloping. So just looking at our existing neighborhoods, existing districts, existing corridors, and figuring out where we can have more employment, more housing, and more people."

Benson said Tampa is built out. Growth is limited on all sides by water. So, the goal is to build up, not out, and to build smart to handle the surge of growth our area might experience.

Affordable housing is one of the most significant issues the city is trying to navigate and solve.  

"If you look at what our projections for growth look like in the future because we always look at the long-range horizon, you'll see that we're about to, by 2045, gain about a quarter of a million more jobs, 75,000 more homes, more residences in the city, and about over 100,000 more people," Benson said. "It doesn't take a planner to look at those numbers and say, 'well, where are all these people going to live."

There's also increasing traffic congestion, the need for public transportation, and dedicated paths off the main streets. And making sure our utilities like water and electricity can keep up with demand and hardening our existing infrastructure for devastating storms.

"It's a very tough balance," Benson said.  

"What worries you about how we can get to these goals or how we won't get to these goals?" Paluska asked.

"Well, I think the other elephant in the room is our environmental challenges," Benson said.

If a category five hurricane directly hit the Tampa Bay area, simulations from Project Phoenix depict a catastrophe none of us could imagine.

"So, how do we make sure that growth and development not just today, but in the future occurs in a way that makes sure that if there is a major storm or some type of an event, some type of disaster, that we're minimizing what that damage is and not putting people in harm's way," Benson said. "That's one of the things that we will be looking at as part of our Coastal Area Action Plan. Looking at all the different coastal neighborhoods, neighborhoods in an evacuation zone to figure out what the right tools are that need to be put in place to protect us, what's the most bang for our buck when it comes to looking at hardening infrastructure?"

Plans are in the works to ease traffic and make people less dependent on vehicles. A Tampa streetcar modernization and extension are also in the works.

"Tampa was a transit-oriented development a hundred years ago," Benson said. "So, what we're doing is trying to reassemble and recreate that transit-oriented feel and that pedestrian-oriented feel so that you don't have to get into a car to take every single trip around your neighborhood."

Ridership on the Tampa streetcar reached record levels in March.

Plans are in the works to modernize and expand the rail line adding an additional four miles of tracks. And, the West River project will include six miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths on the West side of the Tampa Riverwalk.

"Streetcar ridership is off the charts! Last month it hit its highest monthly ridership ever with nearly 108,000 trips," Natalia Verdina, the spokeswoman for Development and Economic Opportunity at the City of Tampa said.

City leaders are also working on a long-range Citywide Mobility Plan (Tampa MOVES) to identify transportation priorities for the next 30 years. The plan will be completed later this year.

1,000 FRIENDS OF FLORIDA

With so many people moving to our state, we imagine urban growth and sprawl taking over our wild places, forcing local communities to sacrifice our natural beauty for our economic ambitions.

But, it doesn't have to be that way, and one group is asking people to re-think their vision of growth in Florida.

The nonprofit 1000 Friends of Florida wants people to "picture a Florida with vibrant cities and towns, thriving livable neighborhoods, and an outstanding quality of life."

Outreach Director Haley Busch knows that all goals are achievable if we work together.

"We know we can't stop growth. The momentum is too, too great for Florida right now. And we don't want to prevent people from coming here. It drives our economy. It's a good thing; we should look at growth," Busch said. "Our state's lacking in what I call vision deficit. With what the future of the state should look like. So that's where urban planners and community planners come in and can step forward and help craft the vision. And local governments can do that through their comprehensive planning process."

Busch said the piecemeal approach to sustainable growth creates a patchwork of development that can vary from region to region.

"The state of Florida, back in the day, we had the best state planning department in the country. It was called the Department of Community Affairs, and in the late 70s and early 80s, we took the lead in statewide, regional big picture planning," Busch said. "And, that was where our state's biggest thinkers, our economists, our land-use managers, lawyers came together and said, look with current trends, we're going to be down this much in our water or up this much in our water demand. So big picture thinking, I think the state ought to return to that type of planning."

Busch said the program was disbanded under former Governor Rick Scott.

"When 2011 comes around, though, that department is gutted," Busch said. "And, so then statewide growth oversight became the Department of Economic Opportunities purview. So then, what do we do? We often find ourselves on the defensive, right, where we work with local governments, counties, and citizen groups at the local level to help them claw back bad and push back bad regulations that dismantle growth protections."

Busch said the battle to protect Florida from urban sprawl impacts every aspect of life for regular citizens. Their top priorities are conserving land, protecting waters, managing growth, better transportation, and building better communities as we face a climate crisis and rising seas.

"Do you think cities can hit their marks? I've heard goals of doing it by 2040, 2045," Paluska asked.

"Yeah, if you don't set goals, though, can you hit a target? So there's still some value in setting a date," Busch said.

Some people have a question about whether increased bike trails and pedestrian paths will bring people back to urban areas to ditch their cars and opt to walk, talk an e-scooter, or bicycle to head to work, the store, or out for fun.

"I think the challenge for planners, for our organization, is to communicate, educate and show folks that a walkable lifestyle means less traffic congestion, can lead to a more enjoyable quality of life," Busch said. "My concern is that many Americans, Floridians grow up thinking that that's normal. And that's okay. And the frustration of traffic congestion is just a part of life. People don't realize there are alternatives. And that's where when people go to new cities, new places, even leave the country and experience living in a place without a car or seeing a place that's been able to grow so rapidly and protect their lands, parks, green spaces; I have hope there that once they see it, they realize it can be done in Florida in their community, and urban sprawl is not the ultimate outcome. It doesn't have to be the outcome."

EASING TRAFFIC CONGESTION

One of the most significant projects underway by the Florida Department of Transportation is the Howard Frankland Bridge expansion.

The project won't just ease congestion but add an alternative for bicyclists across the Tampa Bay area.

"The Howard Franklin Bridge trail will connect on the Pinellas side. It'll travel through the existing Courtney Campbell trail and then across the Courtney Campbell bridge," Justin Hall, Planning and Environmental Management and Office Administrator for District 7, said. "The Howard Frankland bridge trail connects the Pinellas trail, part of the coast to coast network, to the Courtney Campbell Trail. So in theory, you know, you can access the coast-to-coast network which goes from Southern Pinellas to Titusville."

Other projects in the works are also aimed at keeping traffic flowing. But, traffic will always be a part of our daily lives, especially with our anticipated population growth.

"Unfortunately, it's going to be busy. But, we're looking at a lot of different strategies to try and help manage the congestion. Investing in technologies like smart signals to help traffic flow faster," Hall said. "Also, looking at different intelligent transportation systems to help where the signals communicate with the rest of the infrastructure. So, hopefully, you know, when a traveler is moving along a corridor, while it may be steady congestion, we're still keeping them moving."

With all the challenges our region faces. Hall is optimistic.

"I think we can meet the growing need, with the continued investment in technology and safety, and make sure we make smart investments in our infrastructure," Hall said. "We had a public hearing a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to several of the citizens, and I'm like, hey, you know, I drive this road to like, this is how I commute to work. And a lot of them were surprised; I think to hear you know, that hey, I understand the plight, I understand the concern, and I agree that we need to do something."