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Trees and Trains: Tampa’s Downtown in the Next Decade.

18 Jun

This past Thursday the Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted their 27th Annual Meeting and Luncheon for board members, officers, members, and the general public. This year, the Partnership introduced a twist to the usual program: a panel of mid-career men and women to discuss what Tampa needs to and should become in the next decade. The “Fast Forward” panel that included myself of Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Brandon Hicks of Twelfth Street Studio, Brian Seel of The Beck Group, and Ann-Eliza Taylor of the Yates Law Firm was moderated by Shaun Drinkard, the Director of Placemaking with the Partnership. Incoming Chairman, David Smith of Gray Robinson, introduced the panel to offer a different perspective than the more mature and experienced speakers at the usual meetings, and represent the shift he hopes to make in the organization: expansion of membership and more leadership from young professionals.

fast forward panel tampa

The TDP Fast Forward Panel

The Tampa Downtown Partnership serves as an advocate of downtown Tampa, focusing on the physical and economic development, cultural activities and events, and continuing public and private partnerships among stakeholders. The Partnership promotes the downtown community by fostering vibrant and diverse multi-use neighborhoods and plays a key role in creating an urban center where people can learn, live, work, and play. Each panelist is committed to the same objective, and works within different organizations within the community to enhance the vibrancy of Tampa’s downtown and it’s surrounding neighborhoods.

The “Fast Forward” panel discussion revolved around four questions, each providing a different insight into the challenges and triumphs in Tampa’s future. Conversation focused on the hopes and commitments for Downtown Tampa over the next decade, the hurdles encountered and opportunities used to overcome them, and the momentum for future change. From the diverse experiences of the panel, themes emerged from the discussion as the most important for moving Downtown Tampa forward.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!

Arguably the largest priority necessary to make Tampa a first-class city is to be able to attract industry and workforce, and be able to retain it. There is no doubt a host of reasons why Tampa is challenged to compete with cities like Charlotte, Houston, or Raleigh/Durham, but two of the most influential are how the city is perceived and what people can find when they get here.

The Florida reputation will be a hurdle to overcome in attracting industry. Among the most talented young professionals in the country, many silo Florida off into three categories: Miami, Disney and retired people. Unfortunately, Tampa easily can be put in the last category, especially since the Tampa Bay area does host a large number of tourist destinations that draw retirees and snowbirds. Tampa isn’t seen as a place that attracts a large number of young professionals on a national scale, and therefore industries are less likely to move here. They want to establish themselves where young professionals will want to stay indefinitely.

Furthermore, the talent that Tampa is able to attract is easily lost later to more competitive opportunities nationwide. Because of the sometimes-limited industry growth it is hard for employers to promote and develop their employees at the pace expected. When that great opportunity comes up in Charlotte or Atlanta – they take it.

The question becomes – how to we evolve Tampa to be a competitive force for industry and jobs on a national scale?

Pirates, Not Palms

The first is to change the conversation. We need to shift our focus from the Floridian identity of palm trees and sunshine, to what makes Tampa real. Defining a city’s identity on what makes it unique is crucial in its competitiveness. The two things that set apart Tampa from any other American city is its Cuban culture and Gasparilla season.

Ybor City was mentioned numerous times by the panel and was a driving force in attracting at least two of us to live and stay in Tampa. Ybor City is where Tampanians can most easily emotionally connect with the Cuban heritage. The cigar factory architecture, ethnic clubs, cigar shops and bars, and restaurants like The Columbia communicate palpably the cultural heritage that makes Tampa unique.

The Gasparilla festival season that runs for the majority of the winter months exhibits the rich arts character of the city. The art, music, and film festival put Tampa on the map as a culturally relevant city. The fun devotion and commitment to the invasion of pirates during Gasparilla is a refreshing exercise that identifies Tampa as a creative, fun, and interesting place.

Let Clearwater sell the palms – let’s change the conversation to what no other city in the country can offer. We’re already very proud of our Cuban and Gasparilla culture, we just need to communicate and market it more effectively.

7th Avenue Tampa

7th Avenue, Ybor City, Tampa (Image: Steve Minor)

Trees and Trains

The second way to make Tampa competitive on the national scale is to build our way into offering the lifestyle that young professionals want and expect out of their home city. The reason why Mayor Buckhorn sets up Charlotte as perhaps our main competitor is because they have been able to attract a lucrative industry and enhance an urban environment based on walkability and transit. Professionals, who might normally choose Manhattan or Chicago to work and live, are now choosing Charlotte because it offers the foundation of urbanity for a more affordable price.

As a native Charlottean, I believe the city did two things that I believe have led to its transformation in a relatively short amount of time. The first is that Charlotte made a commitment to be a green city. It has arguably the best urban design and complete street guidelines in the country. Every time a street is repaved or redeveloped, where appropriate, its lanes are narrowed, bicycle facilities are included, sidewalks are widened, and planting of mature trees creates a street canopy. The result is that most of the streets in the city center are a comfortable, safe, and attractive place where people want to spend time.

Secondly, Charlotte embraced very early that it could not increase the capacity of its roads indefinitely. It committed itself to developing a premium transit system in a part of the country that had very little. At times it wasn’t understood or seen as necessary by local residents. But the light rail system opened to great success – it’s expansion and the introduction of the streetcar and BRT are following close behind. While the transit system is not expansive yet, it is extremely effective in the territory it does serve. The result is a small, but high quality urban center that has attracted many factors that create a livable environment.

What has followed both of these investments in public infrastructure is economic development. Building along the light rail corridor exploded, even through the recession, to transform a historically industrial area to a dense, connected, and lively part of the city. Furthermore, hubs of walkability have popped up in central neighborhoods throughout Charlotte where significant amounts of residents can access local retail and entertainment along redesigned and pedestrian oriented streets. A 24 hour environment that offers a place to live, work, and play is becoming clustered in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Tampa has the perfect opportunity to emulate the city that has been labelled countless times as its competition. Tampa has benefited from some projects of the highest design quality in the past decade that has already had a large influence in developing Tampa’s downtown into a neighborhood. Curtis Hixon Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Riverwalk, and the Tampa History Museum are new additions that enhance its existing cultural identity built by the Tampa Theatre and Franklin Street. With the addition of two boutique hotels and a new residential tower, Tampa will have even more destinations downtown.

What Tampa doesn’t do well enough is connect these assets together. The city’s gem is the TECO streetcar line that connects Ybor City, the Channel District, and Downtown. It is failing, with little funding, poor operation hours, and inadequate support by local government. It should be revived and rebranded to be seen as a viable choice in public transportation instead of a tourist attraction, and be expanded to connect multiple urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park, the Heights, and the west bank to the urban core. This is imperative to building the type of city that young professionals expect – economic development will follow.

Streetcar Tampa

The TECO Streetcar, Tampa (Image: lightrailnow.org)

Additionally, Tampa suffers from roads that are far too wide and lack the facilities and the character required to make a pedestrian feel comfortable or safe. If Tampa could make a commitment to rebuilding the streets just in the very core of the city by taking back right-of-way from the automobile, it would communicate to current and potential residents that the city is committed to becoming a more livable place. What will result will be a more active public realm that attracts the 24-hour lifestyle that so many on panel called for.

A video was shown at the event where eleven community members shared their vision of downtown in ten years from now, including a Rampello School second grader who wants more trees, and trains like at Disney where you can get on and off all the time.  Olga is right – ‘Trees and trains’ will create the type of urban culture that is wanted and expected by the following generations. Tying the assets of downtown together with high quality public realm design and infrastructure is crucial to making Tampa competitive on the national scale.

A Grassroots Vision

The “Fast Forward” panel was asked how momentum could be built to see real change in Tampa over the next 10 years. The most notable was that the process must be a grassroots effort. The city has just gone through an extensive masterplaning process that has established a vision that reflects the priorities of Tampa citizens and stakeholders. While many feel like it doesn’t adequately address the need for extensive transit in the city, it does call for many enhancements in public infrastructure, including streetscape redesign. Many Tampanians work through community and non-profit organizations constantly to implement this vision. The entire panel agrees that more could be done to bring them together to be more effective in guiding the biggest changes that need to occur. Tampa certainly needs to capitalize the work of young professionals.

Second, Tampa and those involved in the community need to do a better job of owning our vision and “selling” it to each other. Many residents of the city aren’t aware of the culture, physical, and natural assets that Tampa has to offer. The question was raised – How to we sell the city to others when we can’t sell it to ourselves?

Third, while it’s important to focus on the future, the city and its champions should identity the elements of the city that already exemplify Tampa’s newly defined vision. If we can communicate the past successes, no matter how small, to Tampa’ neigh-sayers, we will be well on our way to changing it’s perception on a national scale.

The Mayor’s Mantra

Also in attendance was the Honorable Mayor Bob Buckhorn. In office for just over two years, he has committed his work to making Tampa the economic engine south of Atlanta. This has meant facilitating milestone projects like the last segment of the Tampa Riverwalk, the renovation of Tampa’s historic federal courthouse as a boutique hotel, the planned construction of a riverfront residential tower, and the completion of the Invision Tampa Downtown Master Plan. In continuation of the themes identified by the panel, the Mayor focused building upon Tampa’s biggest strength: diversity. The mayor’s speech focused on the investment in the built environment, especially through enhancing the city’s relationship to the water and expanding the downtown core to the west bank of the river. He stated this is necessary to create a strong economic climate worthy of attracting the best talent in the country.

The “Fast Forward” panel was an informative process in changing the conversation around Tampa’s Downtown. In addition to their usual program, the Tampa Downtown Partnership will continue to have more community conversations through the hard work and leadership of Tampa young professionals over the coming year. Competitiveness, marketability, livability, and communication are sure to remain as the themes that continue to move Tampa “forward.” Stay tuned…

Panelists

Erin Chantry, LEED AP, CNU-A is a Senior Urban Designer with Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc. With a BA in Architecture, an MA in Urban Design, and an MS in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment. Erin is the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, has written articles for Next City, New Geography, and served as a journalist for the national organization of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Erin serves on the executive committee of CNU Tampa Bay, the local chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Brandon Hicks, RA, LEED AP is a licensed architect for the state of Florida and a LEED accredited professional with the U.S. Green Building Council. After tenures with award-winning firms in Gainesville and Tampa, Brandon co-founded the firm Studio Independent with his extremely patient and understanding wife and is currently a Principal in the Channel District-based architecture and design firm, Twelfth Street Studio. Brandon has been fortunate to be integrally affiliated with the headquarters for the South Tampa agency SPARK Brand, the New York City-based video installation ThruLines.

Brian Seel is a Senior Project Engineer with The Beck Group where oversees large commercial constructions projects. A Tampa Bay native, Brian graduated with a degree in political science and real estate from the University of Florida. He earned a Master’s degree in Construction Management from Georgia Tech. He has been actively involved in a number of community groups. He is the Chairman of Emerge Tampa Bay. He also serves as a representative in the Tampa Heights Civic Association and as Secretary of Connect Tampa Bay. He was named an “Up and Corner” by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011 and a Next Generation Leader by 83 Degrees Magazine.

Ann-Eliza Taylor is an attorney with the Yates Law Firm and a co-founder of Philanthropic Young Tampa Bay. Ms. Taylor has been a member of the artist collective Experimental Skeleton since 2002 and is currently a board member of Hampton Arts Management and Tempus Projects. She lives in Ybor City with her husband, visual artist Brian Taylor.

Erin’s Google+

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Urbanism on Tap: Helping Shape Tampa’s Vision.

19 Mar

The regional chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU Tampa Bay) and The Urban Charrette have launched Urbanism on Tap, a series of community events in which citizens can engage in constructive conversations about current issues facing the Tampa Bay metropolitan region. Presented in an open-mic format, the events will be a bi-monthly source of free-flowing discussion about how Tampa can continue to grow as a progressive, competitive and vibrant city. Presented in a series of three events at a time, the goal is provide a forum for diverse members of the community to work together to address issues in our city.

Urbanism on Tap

The first series of events called Rival Cities is focused on understanding Tampa’s vision for the future and how that compares to other vibrant communities throughout the country. The first event of the series, held March 12 at the Tampa Museum of Art, outlined the vision recently established by Invision Tampa, a downtown master plan completed for the City of Tampa. Then the mic was turned over to the audience, which included city commissioners, city officials, business owners, designers and interested citizens. They discussed questions like: What do you think about this vision? What’s missing? and How do we start to make it a reality?

Participants had a lot to say, but’s let’s step back and consider why is it important for a city to talk about vision. Economies now span across regions, countries and the globe. Cities play a different role today: Instead of just providing for its citizens, cities must attract new professionals, industries and services that allow it to be on the world economy stage. If a city can’t compete with similar cities, it will lose out on growth and subsequently a larger tax base. Less money in a city means less of an ability to maintain its infrastructure and provide the daily necessities of living. Every city wants to grow, and grow sustainably. Uncontrollable growth can lead to negative effects that plague cities for decades; example in point, the growing suburbs of the last half of century that have left cities and counties struggling financially. So if a city has a vision that will attract the right type of investment, that will lead to the right type of growth that will contribute to the city’s livability and health the city will be a player in the world economy.

So what is Tampa’s vision? According to Invision Tampa, “Center City Tampa will be a community of livable places, connected people, and collaborative progress that embraces and celebrates its river and waterfront.” The plan states that it “should help address and make downtown Tampa the people’s downtown for the next 20 years, responding to the ideas and needs of the community.” In discussing this vision, The Urbanism on Tap team asked event participants to define what these terms mean to them.

Urbanism on Tap participant's definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Urbanism on Tap participant’s definition of the terms included in the Invision Tampa vision statement.

Defining the Terms

The Invision Tampa vision statement carries a familiar message to residents of Tampa. The Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Vision and Action Plan and the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Sustainable Design Assessment Team: Connecting Tampa Plan established similar visions in 2005 and 2008. Both call for more walkable neighborhoods with local amenities built around a vibrant downtown core with active public places along the riverfront.

The Urbanism on Tap discussion of this vision focused on a strong economy, strong neighborhoods, transportation, urban places/urban design, livability and citizen participation. Visit CNU Tampa Bay’s website to continue the Urbanism on Tap discussion and to see more detailed participant comments on Tampa’s vision. A few suggestions include Tampa’s need for a primary target industry, neighborhoods with communal space that can be accessed by walking, cycling and public transportation, the best technology in efficient mass transit, safe and secure public spaces, and individual responsibility to demand action.

The next installment of the Rival Cities series will examine other cities that are Tampa’s direct competition on the global economy stage. Invision Tampa mentions San Diego and Charlotte as cities to emulate for their expertise in economic development and transportation livability, respectively. While Charlotte is no doubt a competitor, we can look a little closer to home: Orlando is perhaps our largest investment competitor with similar industries, climate, population and geography. Stay tuned to CNU Tampa Bay and The Urban Charrette for the announcement of the date of the next Urbanism on Tap event, as well as an announcement of which cities we consider Tampa’s rival cities.

Spoiler Alert

The first Urbanism on Tap event established that the lack of mention of Tampa’s streetcar in the Invision Tampa plan is a missed opportunity for achieving a more efficient mass transit system, which was identified in the Invision Tampa public involvement process as the most important thing the city must do. As one of the oldest streetcar systems in the U.S. revival of streetcars, Tampa’s system has suffered a lack of funding and political support that systems like Portland (just one year older) have enjoyed. Since their inceptions in 2002 and 2001, respectively, Tampa has remained at 2.7 miles, while Portland has grown to over 9 miles.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public's input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

The word cloud from the Invision Tampa Issues and Opportunities Report (November 2012) that shows the public’s input of what the city must do over the next 15 years.

While the Invision Tampa plan mentioned cross river transit and an urban form that could support it, it didn’t set forth a vision for a mass transit system that would bring competitive investment to Tampa, as well as serve the desires and needs of the community. Some more food for thought? Rival cities like San Diego, Charlotte and Orlando have invested in premium transit — San Diego in a streetcar, light rail and commuter rail; Charlotte in light rail and a streetcar; and Orlando in commuter rail. Transit talk and discussion around Tampa’s streetcar will certainly be a topic of conversation at the next installment of Urbanism on Tap. Stay tuned.

Tampa TECO streetcar

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and executive committee member of CNU Tampa Bay, the regional chapter of The Congress for the New Urbanism. She is also the author of the urban design blog, At the Helm of the Public Realm. With a BA in architecture, an MA in urban design and an MS in urban planning, she has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.

Erin’s Google+

Tampa City Spotlight: Providing Transportation Options in Downtown

10 Oct

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this third post of the series, Jared Schneider, a planner in Tampa will examine transportation networks within downtown Tampa.

What makes cities great? In my opinion, many of the great cities of today are what they are because of an innate desire to change the status quo. It comes from the passion, caring, and vision of good leaders as well and residents to say, can we make our city better? It comes from the investment and civility of the business community. It is this attitude and culture of caring, I believe, that makes many cities great.

Often the tough decisions involve transportation related issues within downtown areas that have an impact on the linkages between the surrounding built environment and open spaces. In particular, many great cities have invested in a wide range of transportation choices to provide a holistic transportation network as well as to instigate redevelopment and provide improved connectivity. CNU has focused on this topic through its Project for Transportation Reform. Specifically, I feel that CNU’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiatives can help serve as guides to providing transportation options in downtown Tampa.

Previous articles in this spotlight series have highlighted Tampa’s transportation challenges as a City of Corridors and Tampa’s past as a bustling urban center dependent upon a robust streetcar system. This article will focus on downtown Tampa and the challenges of providing a suitable transportation network for pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles. The article will also highlight recent transportation advancements in downtown Tampa.

Downtown Tampa Aerial

Photo of downtown Tampa and surrounding areas courtesy of Bing Maps

Similar to many downtowns throughout the country, the transportation network in downtown Tampa mainly functions to move cars in and out as quickly as possible. There are a number of wide, higher-speed roadways and an abundance of surface parking lots, indicating to visitors and residents that the automobile is a priority and pedestrian and bicycle activity is secondary. This has had a dramatic influence on land use and the built environment in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. That being said, many of the greatest cities in the world have wide roadways as well, but where some of the most famous cities differ is that they provide a balance of transportation options and often do a great job of providing parking opportunities that don’t adversely impact urban form.

Similar to a number of other downtowns, Tampa has seen resurgence in recent years in new residential developments in the downtown area – the developments of Channelside and Encore, as well as the Skypoint and Element Towers. The success of these developments will rely on providing a balance of transportation options to support the population increases in the downtown area.

One of the things that I have experienced while walking around downtown Tampa over the last 7 years have been the missed opportunities to make some considerable enhancements to the existing transportation network. It makes financial sense to hold off on making major design improvements until they can be coupled with scheduled roadway maintenance or planned infrastructure upgrades such as stormwater/drainage improvements, landscaping improvements, and roadway re-surfacing projects. Yet in many cases over the last few years, these projects have been completed without taking the opportunity to improve the design of the roadway by enhancing pedestrian mobility, adding facilities for bicyclists, or to improve the downtown from a landscaping or placemaking standpoint. From the perspective of local government, a lot of this is easier said than done, especially considering the current economic condition and challenges faced when funding projects.

Tyler Street Tampa

Pedestrians crossing Tyler Street in Downtown Tampa between John F. Germany Public Library and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

When these opportunities arise, thought should be given to whether or not the current condition can and should be changed. When capital projects are identified and programmed, we should be asking what we can do to build a more connected network of sidewalks or bicycle facilities. An overall transportation vision should already be adopted and in place when capital projects are contemplated or when new development is proposed. This vision should include providing safer, convenient connections and crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as access to public transportation. Last year, the City of Tampa embarked on a master planning process for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Much of the public feedback received throughout this effort revolved around livable transportation and placemaking. This vision should be built upon and specifics should be developed for how roadways in the right context should be improved when the right opportunity arises. If the opportunity presents itself to improve roadways that have been identified as focus areas, the basic strategies for how to redesign them will already be in place.

pedestrian crossings tampa

Long pedestrian crossings

While attending the Mobility and the Walkable City sessions at CNU 20, it was interesting to hear how several cities have been able to fund and implement pedestrian and bicycle projects. One discussion in particular that stuck with me was how many of the mayors or public works departments implementing these projects have a directive to review all resurfacing or maintenance projects for the feasibility of road dieting to better accommodate bicyclists or pedestrians. It was refreshing to see how these places have a proactive culture to provide more transportation options. These cities understand that resurfacing projects are opportunities to create something better, rather than maintaining the status quo. There were specific projects being implemented or that have already been constructed as evident by the number of bicycle tracks or improved pedestrian facilities such as wider sidewalks or improved crossings which have actually been built.

One of the positive initiatives that has been discussed earlier in this series is the City of Tampa Walk-Bike Plan developed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.  The Tampa Walk-Bike Plan identifies several projects in the downtown area, as well as a host of other projects throughout the city, in existing public rights of way. The purpose is to “complete the City’s bicycle and pedestrian grid” by enhancing connectivity and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. There are two main types of projects identified: “Complete Streets” and Stand-alone projects. The purpose of Complete Streets projects is to better incorporate bicycle, pedestrian, and transit modes by reviewing the possibility of road dieting. Stand-alone projects are the “low hanging fruit” – and constitute minor adjustments that can be made without changing the existing roadway geometry, often including the construction of sidewalks or modifying pavement markings to designate bicycle lanes. This initiative is a good step in the right direction because it provides a cost-effective way to enhance bicycle and mobility on the interim. The more expensive “Complete Streets” projects will be considered whenever an “arterial, collector, or neighorhood collector roadway is widened or resurfaced” through a multi-governmental coordination process.

Similar to other industrial cities, Tampa has historically turned its back on its waterfront. Downtown Tampa is surrounded by water on three sides yet appears to be so disengaged from its geography – most waterfront parcels are privately owned and public spaces and parks face inward. Historically, the Hillsborough River was used to provide transportation and drive the local economy. At the turn of the 20th century, wide channels were dredged to bolster Tampa’s growing shipping industry. A century later and things have changed; industry is mainly moving out of the area and downtown Tampa is reinventing itself as a regional entertainment destination and urban neighborhood. A major initiative to reinvigorate downtown Tampa is the completion of the Riverwalk.

historic tampa river

Historic picture of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa Courtesy of the University of South Florida

With the last few segments of the Tampa Riverwalk underway, the city has been turning its focus to its riverfront. The first discussions about enhancing public access to the waterfront location began in the 1970’s and the first design standards were set in 1989. As several developments came to fruition such as the Straz Center for Performing Arts and the Tampa Convention Center, the first pieces of the Riverwalk’s waterfront promenades were built. Over the years the discussion has continued with new ideas to engage the waterfront. One unique effort has been [re] Stitch TAMPA that is an international design completion that included proposals from designers from around the world, including locally, for how to engage the waterfront and establish urban open spaces.

riverwalk downtown tampa

Tampa River Walk near the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

Recently it was announced that the city will receive an $11 million federal grant to finish two smaller, more expensive gaps in The Riverwalk. Once completed it will provide an uninterrupted 2.4-mile connection for pedestrians and bicyclists from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on the north, to the Channelside district to the southeast, and will include several museums, open spaces, and other landmarks along the way.

tampa riverwalk map

Courtesy of usacanadalionsforum.org

Another interesting development is the “Zack Street Promenade of the Arts”. The project reclaimed nearly two full automobile lanes to provide widened sidewalks, improved street crossings, and landscaping for pedestrians with the intent to integrate Public Art into the streetscape.

pedestrian crossings downtown tampa

Zack Street Downtown Tampa

Top left Zack Street before improvement courtesy of Google Streetview. Top Right and Bottom pictures of Zack Street after improvement

While the Zack Street Promenade has room for improvement, it will serve as a fantastic gateway to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park located by the Riverwalk. The waterfront park has become the heart of downtown with major events held on a weekly basis. It is also edged by the newly constructed Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The Promenade will connect the waterfront park to several other cultural amenities such as the Tampa Theatre as well as to an old federal courthouse that has been announced as a future boutique hotel. By connecting to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park an important pedestrian connection across Ashley Drive will be provided which is one of the major roadways in and out of downtown that provides a barrier. Visions for redesigning Ashley Drive have been discussed and should continue to be a focus. The high-speed traffic funnelling directly off two interstate ramps does not complement the built environment of downtown, and is a safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists on a daily basis. While not technically a highway, the road could benefit from many of the principles enlisted in the CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform “Highways to Boulevards” program.

Curtis Hixon Park Downtown Tampa

Courtesy of macdillhappenings.com

While the transportation network in downtown Tampa is still heavily automobile dominated, pedestrian and bicycle activity is increasing. Providing options through pedestrian and bicycle mobility will be important as downtown Tampa continues to grow as a residential and commercial destination. The Project for Transportation Reform’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiative has applicability in certain contexts in downtown Tampa. The city has made strides in recent years and should continue to look for ways to build momentum through improving its transportation network where feasible.

Jared Schneider is a planner and project manager in Tampa and is currently pursuing a Master of Planning in Civic Urbanism degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism.

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Tampa City Spotlight: A Transit Past – But is There a Future?

24 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this second post of the series, Stephen Benson, a transportation planner, will examine Tampa’s transit past and if its holds potential for its rebirth in the future.

Creating great urban places relies heavily on providing reliable and efficient mass transit. A pedestrian or cyclist can only get so far on foot or on bike. In this article I will discuss Tampa’s lost love affair with the streetcar, how suburbanization deprived Tampa’s urban core of 60 years of economic growth, and how Tampa’s lack of reliable, efficient transit service has left it a second-tier city.

Tampa began as a blue-collar manufacturing town – industrial, urban, and extremely diverse. Unlike nearby St. Petersburg, Tampa was not a vacation haven for rich northerners. It was a testament to the melting pot of cultural diversity and hard work that personifies what it meant to live in early twentieth century America. Immigrants from all over the world came here to work in and support the booming cigar industry.  My great grandparents came to Tampa from Spain and Cuba to work in factories. My grandparents ran a restaurant that catered to working class cigar rollers. For most of the 20th century, Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was dubbed the Cigar Capital of the World – rolling out millions of cigars every year. This rich history of manufacturing left its physical mark on the city and makes Tampa’s roots unique to most places in Florida, and the world.

Cigar Workers in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

As Erin Chantry discussed in the first post of this series, Ybor City and early Tampa were well planned. A connective street grid supported walkability. The more remarkable urban amenity of the city was its robust streetcar system. In its heyday, Tampa’s streetcar boasted over 50 miles of track and had 190 vehicles in operation, running from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM everyday. The system reached peak ridership in the 1920s – with almost 24 million riders in 1926. My grandmother recounts a common saying about the Tampa streetcar – “if you can’t get there for a nickel, its not worth going.”

Streetcar in Tampa

Photo courtesy of Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library

map of tampa's streetcars

Photo of vintage Tampa streetcar map courtesy of The Heights Tampa

The rise of the automobile and subsequent conversion to motorized bus systems led to the streetcar’s demise in Tampa, as it did in many other cities throughout the US. Some historians cite conspiracy on the part of the automobile industry as causing the unpopular transition from streetcar to bus. One by one, the automobile industry gained control of popular streetcar systems and dismantled them, promising more efficient (and profitable) gas-powered bus lines. Suspicious locals complained of bribery, spotting elected officials driving new Cadillacs shortly after voting in favor of the transit system’s conversion. Tampa’s documented history of corruption and mob influence supports this theory. To learn more about why this happened, read Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

Tampa’s last streetcar ran on August 11, 1946. This began a journey on the path of suburbanization and sprawl that supported growth and industry for many years. Now, it plagues the city’s economy, culture and built environment, as it necessitates the use of a car, which to many is quickly becoming financially burdensome.

The modern bus system that eventually replaced the streetcar – today called Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) – has never come close to the streetcar’s peak ridership in 1926 – almost a century and over 4 Million people in growth later.

While the merits of the transition from streetcar to bus to automobile can be debated, the impact on the urban form of Tampa and nearly every American city is undeniable. During the second half of the 20th century, Tampa grew outward instead of upward. The popularity of the automobile and the availability of cheap far-flung land led to widespread low-density suburban development, severely diminishing the small-scale urbanism of the historic central city, which fell into blight and disrepair. Urban renewal demolished much of Ybor City, made big promises for urban redevelopment and instead delivered a sea of vacant lots. In the 1960s, the interstate highways were expanded through Ybor City and West Tampa, destroying existing communities and disconnecting the urban core even more.

Central Tampa Aerial

Photo of central Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Like the rest of the nation, anti-urban sentiments lured residents to suburbs outside of town. As a result, the City of Tampa’s population has seen little growth since the 1960s– only about 20%. In the same time, surrounding unincorporated Hillsborough County has tripled in population and neighboring Pasco County’s population has increased tenfold. In 1988, the City of Tampa annexed 24 square miles located 15 miles to the north of downtown and dubbed it ‘New Tampa.’ Originally, this newly incorporated area was discontinuous from the rest of the city, but the state legislature later passed a requirement mandating municipalities to maintain a contiguous land area. To comply, the City annexed a small strip of land to connect New Tampa with the rest of the city, near the University of South Florida (USF) campus. The image below depicts the current gerrymandered city boundaries.

Tampa CityLimits

Photo of Tampa city limits courtesy of Southern Spaces

Aerial of New Tampa

Photo of New Tampa courtesy of Google Maps

Today, the Census Bureau estimates the population of the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area at 4.2 million, making it the 17th most populous in the nation and the 15th largest in land area. Yet, it doesn’t even make it into the top 100 for population density. Even with several walkable urban activity centers, the surrounding metro area’s nearly 1,000 square miles of established suburban development is gargantuan. Serving the metro area with efficient transit service is nearly impossible without a staggering financial investment and strong, coordinated political will across the region. Even then, with residents spread so thinly, bus routes would have to criss-cross the county like a tightly-spun spider web.

In 2010, a one percent sales tax increase referendum, to fund transportation improvements (including light rail between Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport, and the USF campus) in Hillsborough County failed. Abysmally. The reason? A combination of confusion and distrust of government. Generally speaking, most of the major improvements (including light rail) would have been implemented within the City of Tampa limits and the more urban parts of the unincorporated county.  But the resounding question among more suburban county residents was “what’s in it for me?” Transportation planners failed to clearly and accurately answer that question to the general public.

Sure, you’re building light rail over in Tampa, but what about that nasty pothole on my cul-de-sac? The typical suburban-versus-urban dynamic is alive and well in West Central Florida.

Post-referendum reports cite that over 70% of residents think something needs to be done to improve transportation. Where they disagree is what to do to fix it, and how to pay for it. Local leaders have failed to effectively explain that improvements to the overall transportation system don’t only benefit those who regularly use it, but they help grow and support the economy of the entire region, attracting businesses and residents alike. Traffic congestion impacts the entire region, not just the specific neighborhood or road where it occurs. Wasted time and fuel as a result of congestion trickles down to higher costs for goods and services for consumers. Improving regional transportation is a win-win for everyone.

Suburban residents can’t rationalize walking a half-mile through winding, indirect subdivisions to get to a bus stop, and wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. When they moved in, they never intended to use transit and without any major infill and redevelopment they likely never will.

This doesn’t change the fact that building a premium transit system to support the walkable urban core will create a more prosperous region. The economic benefits will positively impact outlying suburbs by preserving their quality of life, and potentially alleviating some of the choking congestion they encounter. At some point, cities like Tampa must choose between a transit system that serves everyone equally across a region, or a system that supports more intensive future urbanism by effectively and reliably serving the urban core. Without an effective transit system, any significant level of density, activity, or growth, is impossible. Sure, Tampa is on the map. But is it somewhere worth going? After all, “if you can’t get there on a nickel…”

Stephen Benson is a transportation planner and third-generation Tampa native. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

Tampa City Spotlight: A City of Corridors

17 Sep

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this first post, I will examine Tampa’s network and condition of arterial roadways and how they are relevant to CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform.

I have written and preached a lot to the importance of a connected road network in a city. I grew up in North Carolina where suburban sprawl is vast, often with roads that end in cul-de-sacs or that are lined with gated subdivisions. I believe that if a city’s roads are built on a connected grid, traffic will permeate more freely through an urban area and streets will maintain a human scale that is appropriate for all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Connectivity is often a necessary condition to foster social, economic, and environmental sustainability. I have always thought that if a city is well connected it had won most of the battle of making room for cars without sacrificing the streets as public space for people. Similarly, CNU’s Designing Walkable Thoroughfares (part of the Project for Transportation Reform) mostly stresses this point as well with their slogan, “Connect Your Streets. Connect Your Communities.”

When I moved to Tampa just this year, I was relieved to see that it is a very well connected city. Blocks may vary in size and form, but every urban neighborhood is woven together in a tight grid. The assumption was that the city could be a fertile ground for mixed-use walkable areas. However, I soon learned, despite my urban design training, experience, and education, that connectivity is not everything.

TampaMap

A map showing Tampa’s connected street grid. (Source: http://www.hillsclerk.com)

TampaTypicalRoad

A typical corridor in Tampa. (Source: Sprinkle Consulting)

In addition to connectivity and a consistent investment in infrastructure, land use development is also crucial to making thoroughfares walkable. While other connected roads in Tampa are still host to older and historic buildings that once formed small pockets of pedestrian-oriented mixed-uses, most of modern commercial development along the afore mentioned corridors are auto-oriented. The result is that large surface parking lots line roads with low-density buildings set back far from the sidewalks. Not only does this deprive the corridors of an easily accessible pedestrian network and an in scale building height to street ratio, it makes uses separated at a distance that is unwalkable. Even in the most urban neighborhoods, new development still often follows this form. The lesson learned is that connectivity cannot lead to change alone. Tampa is one of the most connected cities I have ever lived in, but the adherence to Functional Classification and poor land use development, creates corridors  inhospitable to pedestrians.

ParkingLotDaleMaybry

An example of typical land use along Tampa’s corridors. (Source: Loop.net)

How is the city fixing it? Slowly. Perhaps the best example is the Kennedy Overlay District project along Kennedy Boulevard, which the city has recognized as a gateway into the city. Carrying traffic from nearby St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well as Tampa International Airport, Kennedy is a very important corridor to the city. It also plays an enormous role in the social sustainability of the city by connecting a large number of historic neighborhoods together, some healthier than others. The City describes it: “Providing a form-based, aesthetic framework that promotes development that creates a sense of interest and promotes a physically attractive, functionally integrated environment is essential. Additionally, provisions are introduced that establish pedestrian and transit friendly design standards for this corridor.” (City of Tampa, 2012.) Essentially, new development requires a private investment in a much wider sidewalk with street trees and most importantly that buildings front the street. The result over time is a multimodal corridor that serves as a spine of sustainability for the city.

Tampa Kennedy Boulevard Design

The City’s vision for the Kennedy corridor (Source: tampagov.net)

Progress has moved slowly along the corridor, in part I am sure to the economic downturn. Some successful examples do exist however, that show a much-improved future for Tampa pedestrians. The best example is a Starbucks that provides a widened sidewalk enhanced with brickwork, street trees, outdoor seating against the public realm, a small parking lot to the side of the building instead of in front, and a curb cut entrance on a side street to maintain a consistent streetscape on Kennedy. The difference is very noticeable when compared with the development next to it. With eight similar overlay districts along its corridors, Tampa is making a slowly growing commitment to adopting more urban and sustainable standards.

Kennedy Boulevard Starbucks Tampa

Starbucks, Kennedy Boulevard (Source: jrts on Flickr)

Another project that is improving the use of Tampa corridors by all users is the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Walk/Bike Plan. In summary, “the Walk‐Bike Plan identifies bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects which can be constructed within existing roadway alignments and other public rights‐of‐way that provide a basic accommodation for walking and bicycle mobility. As the plan is implemented, elements such as landscaping/streetscaping and other enhancements may be considered to improve the quality of the cyclist/pedestrian experience and to incentivize private investment within Walk‐Bike Plan project corridors.” (City of Tampa Walk/Bike Plan, 2011.) In essence and its implementation to date, as regular maintenance and repaving of roads occur striping is amended to include thinner lanes, on-street parking, and a connected network of bike lanes. This project is admirable because it can make a large difference in a street’s safety and comfortability, without requiring an increase in funds. This is particularly important in today’s economic climate. On streets where restriping has occurred, traffic has slowed and the number of cyclists have increased.

Swann striping Tampa

Swann Avenue, Tampa: an example of Tampa’s Walk/Bike Plan (Source: Bicycle Stories)

However, while these are admirable advances by a city that is cash-strapped in a recession (like many), a much larger shift in theory and commitment in practice are required to make a noticeable difference along Tampa’s corridors. At the recent CNU20 Conference in West Palm Beach, I attended the Mobility and the Walkable City track, which explored many of the issues that face the implementation of walkable thoroughfares.

I very impressed with new urbanist, Rick Hall’s adaptation of Functional Classification to New Urbanism’s transect. In his quest to see more complete streets built, he realized that to see change, he must speak the language of the people capable of making change. As a former employee of the DOT, he knew that the Functional Classification System was so imbedded in the U.S. transportation culture that he needed to adapt it to consider land use, contextual character, and multimodal uses. The traditional DOT focus has been on safety = less congestion = moving cars quickly. While the traditional system defines a lot, along with establishing this belief, it doesn’t clearly demarcate the difference between suburban, rural, and urban. In many cases, the system defaults to rural and suburban, resulting in large roads devoid of place. Hall’s new Augmented Functional Classification manipulates the speed and design for the same road type based on the land use context.

Instead of a corridor maintaining the same design despite whether it is in the suburban or urban, which occurs constantly in Tampa, Hall’s system suggests that road design change based on the land uses along it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the street would carry less traffic, but curb/gutter, sidewalk and public realm design, cycling facilities, and crosswalks would adapt throughout the city. The result would be a more walkable street when it was required.

New Urbanism Functional Classification

Rick Hall’s Augmented Functional Classification (Source: Rick Hall, CNU20)

While this new urbanist idea requires more research, development and implementation before it can be fairly judged as a solution to the adaptation of Tampa’s many deficient corridors, it is this “big idea” thinking that is required to make an impact for pedestrians and cyclists for my city, and many others in Florida. And while a “big idea” can’t be applied consistently to every corridor in the city, one is required to be a catayst for a large change. Therefore, Tampa could benefit greatly from adopting a new framework in corridor retrofits.

Many roads in Tampa, despite it’s connected grid network, are a mess and pose a huge threat to the mixed-use walkable development that is at the heart of CNU’s Charter and core mission. While the city is making small steps to improve it’s corridors over time, Tampa is a perfect testing ground for the Project for Transportation Reform and big ideas like Rick Hall’s Augmented Classification.

Erin Chantry is an urban designer and writer of At the Helm of the Public Realm. She is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism. Please visit  http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

Erin’s Google +

Guest Post: Stepping Off the Curb and Into the Sunshine

23 May

Let me introduce to you Stephen Benson. I first met Stephen on my first visit to Tampa while interviewing for my current position. I could tell from his suave style and haircut that he was much more than your typical urban planner…and I was right! Please enjoy the following article on Florida’s pedestrian problem.

In recent years, the Sunshine State bore the brunt of national criticism regarding roadway safety due to our alarming record of pedestrian fatalities. While it’s true that we carry the highest pedestrian fatality rate when compared to our population, headlines seem to ignore the fact that this pedestrian safety problem is not unique to Florida. According to the 2011 ‘Dangerous by Design’ report released by Transportation for America, 9 of the top 10 states with the highest pedestrian fatality rates are “Sun Belt” states. The superficial response to this statement is that our beautiful, mild climate is the cause; sunshine and flat terrain promotes recreational demand and increases pedestrian activity. However, while mild climate certainly influences the lifestyles of this region, this conclusion falsely implies that nothing else can be done to improve pedestrian safety. Indeed pedestrian activity is influenced more by culture and the built environment than by the weather. This explains why densely populated northern cities like Seattle, New York, Boston and the District of Columbia have some of the nation’s highest walking, biking, and transit-riding populations, despite their harsh winters and challenging topography. Since pedestrian activity is high, it’s not a surprise that these denser urban centers experience more annual pedestrian fatality counts. But when population is factored into the equation, northern cities fare from low to about average in pedestrian fatality rates, and southern cities and states jump to the top of the list. The real curiosity comes when you consider that even the largest metro areas in the South – Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami – are still largely suburban in nature and thus dominated by automobile travelers. This begs the question, how is it that states with relatively low pedestrian activity generate higher pedestrian fatality rates when normalized by population?

The answer lies in the built environment and its impact on mobility. The complex pattern is more evident when approached from a macro perspective. The pedestrian fatality problem can be traced to three primary trends: overwhelming levels of (suburban) growth since the 1960s, large communities of economically disadvantaged citizens with lower educational attainment, and higher proportions of transportation disadvantaged persons (children and the elderly). These land use and socio-economic conditions heavily influence the transportation system – and directly impact pedestrian safety issues.

The vast majority of growth in the South since 1960 has been typically suburban in nature – characterized by an intentional separation of land uses and hierarchical street systems with low connectivity and wide 6-lane (or more) arterial roadways. This type of built environment is simply not conducive to pedestrian travel because walking distances are much farther and wide roadways are more challenging for pedestrians to safely cross. Very often, pedestrians choose to cross mid-block simply because it is easier to evaluate fewer automobile movements at once. Major arterial intersections may be built precisely to engineering standards and possess upgraded pedestrian features, but if a pedestrian feels intimidated by an intersection they will choose to cross elsewhere. Suffice it to say that transportation disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged populations – who rely on transit, walking, and bicycling to get around – are often overwhelmingly present in these areas and are forced to use a system that might not have been designed with their mobility in mind.

Neighborhood design has a direct impact on pedestrian safety and the overall pedestrian experience. One of the most important factors lies in crossing distances – generally the fewer lanes a pedestrian must cross, the better. With each additional travel lane comes higher auto-travel speeds and a greater crossing distance for a pedestrian. This translates to a higher safety risk. If a protected median is not present to provide a safe place to pause when crossing, pedestrians must evaluate and avoid automobile traffic traveling in both directions – a task that is often impossible to do while crossing one hundred feet of asphalt on a 6-lane (or more) roadway. In the South, these wide suburban roadways are far more common than in the North, and southern suburban development patterns provide fewer alternate routes along safer “side streets” more common in the street grids of northern cities. Most northern metro areas were built out well before 1950, and their built environments are uniquely characterized by denser development patterns – mixed-use zoning and gridded street systems. While at the heart of some southern cities lay pockets of relatively dense street grids, these southern pre-industrial neighborhoods are quite small, and usually house a miniscule proportion of metro populations. Southern metro areas were built out much later in the 20th century – at the height of suburbanization – and are largely characterized by these development patterns. Even in the small dense urban centers of the south, we have worked tirelessly to redesign existing urban transportation infrastructure to meet new suburban roadway design standards – widening to eleven-foot travel lanes, busting curbs to increase turning radii at intersections, installing continuous right-turn lanes, etc. Only recently have transportation professionals begun to consider “context sensitive” roadway design solutions and develop standards for implementation.

Pedestrian Crossing Not At Intersection

Pedestrians often perceive crossing mid-block as safer than crossing at an intersection no turning movements and no intersecting roadway. (Source: CURBED) Would you feel safe crossing the street at this location? Would you allow your child to? (Source: Steve Roos)

According to a 2010 report released by Brookings on ‘Suburban Poverty,’ over the last decade poor populations in major American metropolitan areas increased by nearly 6 million and the vast majority of that growth occurred in suburban areas. Furthermore, over the last few years the metro areas with the highest increases in poverty rates were “Sun Belt” cities throughout Florida and California. It’s no coincidence that Florida and California are also the top two states for pedestrian fatality rates. Indeed pedestrian safety is not only a transportation problem, but a fundamental social justice issue. The passing of the American’s with Disabilities Act adopted national standards for pedestrian mobility in the name of civil rights. It is our responsibility as planners to recognize the significance of pedestrian mobility and safety in our daily work.

The long-term solution lies in the way we plan, design and redesign the built environment. This calls for a reevaluation of fundamental land use and transportation principles that have guided development patterns for the last half-century. Indeed, denser mixed-use areas with smaller roadways and more street connectivity have societal benefits from many perspectives – public health, urban design, public utilities and services, and affordable housing. But, these places also tend to be safer for pedestrians. Ensuring that new development follows these pedestrian-friendly guidelines will be the challenge of the future.

The short-term solution to pedestrian safety requires a holistic approach that reaches across many professions and disciplines. The first step begins in identifying the top five corridors in your area that carry the most severe-injury pedestrian crashes and fatalities. The challenge is then to implement aggressive educational outreach, law enforcement activities and innovative engineering strategies to reduce pedestrian crashes based on the individual crash patterns on these corridors. Every community has unique safety challenges and a sustained, coordinated multidisciplinary approach is the best strategy to solve these problems. However, nearly every community has a handful of roadways that combined carry the majority of the pedestrian crashes. Focus on making the largest impact on these corridors.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment.

Good planning and good design includes planning for a safe pedestrian environment. (Source: Greater Greater Washington and Urban Review STL)

Florida’s pedestrian safety problem is not simply another statistic to lament over, or a problem for “the engineers” to fix, and it’s certainly not a side-effect of too much sunshine. As planners, we are guided by the AICP Code of Ethics: “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.” Addressing pedestrian safety should serve as another opportunity for us to promote building better communities that truly serve everyone. It is not simply our job to plan for the needs of society, but it is our duty to take action, be proactive, and do everything within our ability to ensure these needs are fulfilled.

This article was originally printed in the Winter 2012 issue of Florida Planning Magazine, published by the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Stephen is a transportation planner for Tindale-Oliver & Associates in Tampa, Florida. He holds a BA in Geography and a master’s degree in Urban & Regional Planning from the University of South Florida. His expertise includes transportation safety and planning for bicyclists and pedestrians. He is currently interested in examining the relationship between transportation safety and land use patterns, and identifying coordinated multidisciplinary strategies to mitigate the consequences of urban sprawl.

Local Series: Architecture Isn’t Everything…

28 Mar

But it’s something.

As a trained architect, I understand the influence that buildings can have on urban design. They connect people with their heritage, they give a place a unique identity, and they help create hustle and bustle in cities and neighborhoods. They can also be works of art. There are some buildings by the greatest architects, my favorite being Daniel Libeskind, that take my breath away and actually alter the way I look at the world. The greatest architecture speaks to a higher conceptual idea, and every design element of the building answers to it. Buildings have the power to truly affect people’s emotions and contribute to their lives…but they are not necessary.

This was evident in my visit to Sarasota this past weekend. My weekly explorations of my new state took me to Saint Armands Circle, which was developed by John Ringling of….you got it!…the Ringling Brothers Circus. Turns out that in addition to juggling and eating fire, John Ringling designed and built one of the most loved parts of Sarasota. After travelling to Italy, he was inspired to create a “people friendly place of broad boulevards, beautiful homes, classical statues, lush landscaping, elegant shops and restaurants, and a central park for musical performances.” In 1917 he began his vision, which grew until the Great Depression. It took another two decades after that for his neighborhood to be complete.

An aerial of Saint Armand’s Key with the circle in the center of the island. (www.thesaundersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SAC-Aerial.jpg)

Saint Armands Circle was a very successful piece of urban design. It’s ample and pleasant pedestrian environment thrives despite it being wrapped around a road carrying high volumes of traffic. Multiple users were able to share the public realm comfortably and safely. Angled and paralleled parking protected the pedestrian further. In fact, there was parallel parking around the traffic circle, which baffled my English husband (we know how the English are about their roundabouts…) But in fact, it was perfectly safe. People were so concerned about not being able to park on the curve that they did so very carefully and slowly, further protecting pedestrians. The mixed-use area hustled and bustled on this Saturday afternoon, while the central park was quaint and quiet. The pedestrians crossings were very short and very wide. They were interjected so often by median parks that their short distance was almost cute. If a pedestrian crossing can be cute, these certainly were. It truly was charming, I didn’t want to leave.

But what really struck me about this part of the city was the lack of architectural integrity in the buildings. Some buildings were nothing more than a storefront that seemed to be held up by the structures on either side. Others were built from the cheapest materials, playfully mimicking Greek and Italian style. It was laughable, and yet it really didn’t matter. No one noticed the buildings, no one cared. People just loved sitting at the sidewalk cafe people watching, eating ice cream in the shaded park, and window shopping. The activity and interaction with people is what made people love this space. And I have to say, I think that is the case of most well-loved places. Buildings do not have to be beautiful, conceptually designed, and breathtaking to make a difference.

What made Saint Armands Cirle work so beautifully was how the fabric was constructed around one central point. Connected streets and perimeter blocks with dense, mixed use buildings, like so many other most-loved places, created the structure for the community and visitors to flock to it for decades.

John Ringling certainly has brought us all a lot in our lives. For most of us its tricks, animal performances, and trapeze acts found only at the oldest and most successful circus in the world. We’ve all been, and it was magical. But for the lucky residents of Florida he gave us a perfect piece of urban design, which serves as a sustainable example of how to continue to construct our built environment.

And remember, it’s not all about the architecture people.

Local Series: Celebration.

11 Mar

I have been a supporter of New Urbanism ever since I was educated enough to understand traditional urban design principles and the effects they can have on people’s lives and local businesses. I wrote my first masters dissertation on the New Urbanism movement, mostly because I realized there was a a disconnection between the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) Charter, and what was actually being built on the ground. I was witnessing a fourth and fifth wave of New Urbanism developments being built where I lived, and saw little to no direction on the how CNU’s principles should be implemented, or any measure on which to judge them. Developments were being built, that in my opinion, weren’t properly embodying the movement; my research proved that this was the case.

Since moving to Florida I have been itching to make it to Celebration and Seaside, two of the most well-known examples of New Urbanism. Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Celebration, and I took it! I have to say, overall I was very pleasantly surprised. But this was a reaction I wasn’t expecting. Reports of people who have been weren’t stellar, and time has provided lots of criticism of the movement.

The main criticism of New Urbanism on the public, national scale is the architectural design often used in these developments. It is almost always traditional and sometimes lacks design detail. The result is that buildings can look unsubstantial, almost like a movie set. Which is ironic, since the New Urbanism development of Seaside was used as just that for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. For a movement that is supposed to be so forward thinking addressing the modern issues of society, critics ask why does it appear to be stuck in the past?

After visiting Celebration my answer to this question was confirmed: because architectural style is the least important issue of New Urbanism, and it ticks almost every other box pretty well. A very wise professor pointed out to me the great responsibility that urban designers have, that architects don’t. Urban designers design the public realm, which will remain for thousands of years. When we design a street, millions of dollars of public infrastructure will be designed along with it. In Europe the busiest of roads were designed and built by Romans – they are still there. Buildings on the other hand are a very transient layer of the built environment. While they are of course instrumental in giving a piece of town its unique identity, they last a comparatively short amount of time; demolished and rebuilt on the average of a 40 year cycle. My point is that street network and design is more important to contributing how we can navigate our world in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

The majority of the architectural design of Celebration was very traditional, but also very nice. The truth of the market speaks: we are in Orlando, FL, not southern California where modernism and post-modernism is the accepted architectural style. However, the developers, which of course was Disney, backed up Celebration with some big architectural heavy hitters. Michael Graves, Phillip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern all designed civic buildings in the Celebration town center. ‘Nough said.

My own personal criticism of New Urbanism is that it often focuses on the small-scale design details, such as streetscape and pedestrian experience. While of course these are crucial, larger and arguably more influential factors like connectivity with its urban context are sacrificed. Of course you hear me harp on about connectivity like I’m a broken record, but it’s so important to being able to use our built environment in an environmental sustainable way. While Celebration is very permeable within itself, with perimeter blocks and connected streets, it is not connected to its greater context. Of course that in part is because there is nothing much to connect to; it’s location like a traditional subdivision, is off the side of a highway with no efficient mode of public transportation.

And this is where the greater conclusion of my research on New Urbanism comes in: it’s worth it anyway. Because one day I truly believe that we will get our acts together (out of necessity instead of choice I’m afraid), and provide our citizens with an efficient, accessible, and extensive public transportation network. And when that happens, developments like Celebration will best be prepared to accommodate it without any alterations. Like the most ancient towns built around the same traditional urban design principles, it will be the most flexible and sustaining.

If you can look beyond the architectural design or the fact that on the large-scale it isn’t accomplishing large environmental change like the movement aims to do, Celebration does so much right. Mixed uses that include retail, commercial, residential, office, educational, and institutional truly allow residents to not have to leave the town for days on end. Perimeter blocks allow public spaces to be completely overlooked. Opportunities are provided to connect with nature, including fishing in the town center lake, an active/play water feature, and natural corridors that make room for wildlife. A true mix of housing is provided: small apartments, townhouses, small and dense single-family homes, and large mansions with water and wooded views means a family can be accommodated their entire lives. Celebration is very legible: landmarks galore create place identity unique to the town. While of course Celebration has the weather in its favor, the public realm is very active. Ground level spaces create lots of hustle and bustle on the main streets, filled with people doing my favorite activity: people watching. This is evidence of a healthy public realm.

Above all else, it is extremely walkable with a stunning pedestrian environment. I saw one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever seen in Celebration. It was proportioned perfectly with a stream and wildlife corridor down the center, one lane of traffic with a one bay of parallel parking on each side. Intermittently it was crossed by beautiful, arching bridges to provide a connected street network. A welcome arch of shade over the sidewalk is created by a line of trees. Kudos…it was perfect.

Water Street, Celebration, FL

Finally its important for me to say there was not one trace of Mickey mouse in this whole place. While it might have been developed by the Walt Disney World corporation, it will sustain itself as a town in its own right for sure. It has matured well, and grown into its own over the last two decades. Celebration was the first, younger generation example of New Urbanism I got to witness first hand, and what a treat it was. If the New Urbanism developments built in later years, and those still to come can adhere to the CNU principles as well as Celebration did, we can perhaps start to see some real change in our suburban built environment.

Google

Local Series: The War Over Walmart.

28 Jan

I wrote a post a week ago about how important communication is in achieving high quality urban design. It included the example of Independence Boulevard in Charlotte, which has been transformed from a main road to a highway. This week, along this road, where many local businesses once were, a new Walmart had its grand opening. It has received a lot of local press, and everyone is asking the same question – is this good for the area?

Of course, my gut reaction is no. Absolutely not. Walmart is never good for a neighborhood. While the local media asked the question, they continued to paint the issue in a mostly positive light. Check out a clip here: http://swfs.bimvid.com/bimvid_player-3_2_7.swf?x-bim-callletters=WCCB Jobs, convenience, tax money, increased property values, and advertisement are all arguments. Educated in urban regeneration, and very much aware that bringing new life to an area is extremely challenging, I had to think: am I missing something? Is it possible for a big box store to be a good thing for a local community and the city?

So my husband and I went to a check it out. A grand opening of Walmart is something I never saw myself attending, but I did, and wasn’t surprised to see the parking lot packed. I assume people were at Walmart for the same reason they always are: a big selection at the lowest prices. There is a whole argument that underlies this debate that I will not go into here. But unlike other big box retailers, Walmart creates a debate over workers benefits and rights, specifically unionization and healthcare. Let’s just say boycotting was the thing to do in college. I never did, but never really set out to shop there either. I definitely received a stink eye or two for not jumping on the band wagon. So now, when I hear that Walmart is providing jobs for the area at the very least I’m skeptical.

What I really care about is how a store like Walmart affects the local neighborhood and city from a physical standpoint. Here are the given urban design and planning disadvantages of having a store like Walmart in your community, no matter where it is:

A Killer of Local Business

It is impossible for local stores to stay in business anywhere near Walmart. It sells everything for way less expensive that any independent business could ever compete with. It succeeds on the economy of scale: huge amounts of cheap goods made in China with lower overall overhead costs. Local and family owned businesses that have been at the heart of communities all over America are put to death within months of a Walmart opening their doors. Some might say this is progress. I say it is taking away the unique identity, heart, and economic stability of a neighborhood. Instead of profit being put back into the community, it goes to Walmart headquarters in Arkansas and manufacturers in China. Local businesses are something we should always fight for.

A Killer of the Environment

The carbon footprint of Walmart has to be enormous. The shipping of products across the globe and their distribution across the country rely on fossil fuels. The farther products have to travel, the more environmentally unfriendly an organization is. The large size of the store and even larger size of the parking lot is, in many cases paving over green fields and adding, and at the very least, maintaining the heat index and water runoff issue that over-urbanized environments create.

A Killer of the Pedestrian Streetscape

You can not walk to Walmart. Well you can, but not comfortably. There are very few pedestrian connections to their surroundings, the parking lot is usually too big, and customers are encouraged to buy large amounts, which means they can’t carry their shopping home. A Walmart in a neighborhood encourages more people to drive to purchase their daily necessities, even if they could walk. More driving = less walking = poorer health.

A Charlotte resident might say to me…Erin, there weren’t any local businesses there before it was built. Isn’t something better than nothing? No, what’s best is to get it right. I have watched Independence Boulevard go from a busy road lined with business after business to deserted buildings and plots of land. Some of these businesses were chains, but many were local. Part of this transition was because investment moved to other parts of the city, as they often do. I personally believe that the introduction of new urbanism and mixed-use commercial shopping destinations was partly responsible for this. After all, Independence Boulevard has been very car centric.

A before an after of the Amnity Gardens Shopping Center that was booming in 1961 and had fallen dilapidated by the early 1990s. The new Walmart has replaced it. (http://planningpool.com/2009/09/transit-oriented-development/walmart-anchor-transitoriented-development/)

But the city of Charlotte missed an opportunity that made sure that businesses never had the ability to ever prosper along Independence Boulevard again…they turned it into a highway. Such a missed opportunity, and so sad. The city has permanently segregated neighborhoods from each other and killed the possibility of a mixed-use, pedestrian environment that could serve local residents in an environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable way. They were short-sighted. Being patient and committing investment into this Charlotte artery could have revived the whole area to be the new “it place” in the city. It was before, it could have been again.

I was shocked to find that the city of Charlotte planning department designated this area as a transit-oriented and mixed-use development in its 2009 Independence Boulevard Concept Area Action Plan. TOD cannot work, and certainly not reach its full potential next to a highway with no tram line and pedestrian routes. Additionally, there is no way that a Walmart is an example of a business that can help foster a TOD development. Click here to read more. The city has certainly let the city and local neighborhood down.

So yes, there were no local businesses there before this Walmart. But with the fate the highway has sealed, I would argue it would have been better for the community to be planted with local tree specimens and turned into a green lung along the highway and a park for local residents. Something is not better than nothing. Independence Blvd. should have been revived as a true boulevard…a tram line, buses, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists together. This Walmart will only suck business away from local stores across the entire area, including Monroe Road, Eastway Drive, and Central Avenue.

When I visited the Walmart, it was like every other Walmart. But here are some particular urban design details I will share. Some make me laugh…my favorite? The sidewalk to nowhere.

The Independence Blvd. Walmart fails on all three counts: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economical sustainability.

Finally, here is a shout out to my favorite local business on Independence Blvd. As one of the last long-standing Charlotte landmarks, it is where my parents used to date in the early 60s. Good ole’ South 21 Drive In. We haven’t had to seal its coffin just yet…

South 21 Drivein at 3101 E. Independence. Blvd. (http://www.south21drivein.com/)

Local Series: The Original Suburb.

26 Jan

I grew up in Myers Park, a much-loved neighborhood near Uptown Charlotte. Today, it is celebrated for its historic homes and beautiful tree-lined streets. Some families have lived there for generations. The neighborhood is seen as a present day icon, but many are unaware of its history. Myers Park was a streetcar suburb developed at the turn of the 20th century (c. 1905) by George Stephens on his father-in-law’s cotton farm and designed by the famous John Nolen, a Harvard trained urban planner. Nolen gained notoriety by designing neighborhoods and cities all over the country.

Queens Road West: one of Charlotte's most beloved streets (http://www.agentbecky.com/img/Bill-pics/queens_w.jpg)

Charlotte was originally condensed to four wards densely surrounding the heart of the city, Independence Square. Its population grew as a cotton trading town that expanded to the cotton mill and banking industries. Businessmen looked to farmland south of the city as a development opportunity they couldn’t pass up. But what made this all possible was the electric streetcar. Before the widespread use of the automobile, the streetcar allowed people to live out of the city but still be able to access the urban center, the location of the workplace and daily necessities. A short 1.5 mile ride, the easy commute and comparatively country living was irresistible for many Charlotte residents.

The streetcar in historic Uptown Charlotte (http://www.cmhpf.org/photoGallery/4/scars1.jpg) and the then undeveloped Myers Park neighborhood. (http://www.cmhpf.org/site-pix/MP-EntranceGate.jpg)

Unlike other cities, the move to the suburbs in Charlotte was due to the incredible growth of the town. Before the Civil War it was a hamlet of several hundred people. By 1900 it was 18,000. For reference, the metro area now has a population of 1,745,524. The four original wards had gorgeous, large mansions of the rich. Of course Myers Park and other suburbs attracted the wealthy, but the large expansion of the city was really about its steady and enormous growth in population. Other suburbs part of this overall growth, such as Plaza Midwood to the west of the city, expanded at a slower rate because of its poor access to the streetcar. George Stephens made one very important move – he subsidized the streetcar in Myers Park so it would serve his community first and extensively.

You might ask – how is Myers Park different from the growth patterns that we see in cities across America today? Isn’t suburban growth now the same? An example of the Garden Suburb movement, Myers Park was typical of early 20th century growth, and the majority of similar neighborhoods exhibit at least three characteristics that have sustained them as some of the most loved parts of cities across the country.

Connectivity

As can be seen from the map below, Myers Park is a very connected and permeable neighborhood. Its perimeter block structure connects easily and clearly with its surrounding context. When Charlotte citizens travel from one side of the city to another they pass easily through the neighborhood. While this supports economic sustainability, which has led to successful commercial businesses, its real success lies in social inclusion. Because Myers Park operates as part of the larger city, it belongs to every one, not just the people who live there. This is its greatest quality. In consequence, the neighborhood has become well-loved and cherished.

If Myers Park were built in the disconnected street structure of modern-day suburbs, it would exclude citizens in favor of exclusive residents. Not part of the larger city, it could have been forgotten over time. When a place is forgotten it isn’t socially or economically sustainable, suffering from dropping property values and closing businesses.

Streetscape

While houses are spread out and set back from the road, three rows of trees are what give the street definition. The Myers Park streetscape is cherished and at any time of day you can see families taking walks, children riding their bikes, and adults going on runs. The side walks are buffered by a generous amount of green space and shaded by a canopy of beautiful oaks. Two lanes of traffic separated by large medians in the middle of predominant roads make room for the car while not overwhelming the pedestrian. Both live harmoniously. Visible and overlooked, the streets are safe and remain active in a car-centric culture.

Many streets in modern-day suburbia have no sidewalks, or if they do they are small extensions of the road with no pedestrian buffer. Even if the streets were connected, which can be rare, the focus on the car can makes a pedestrian uncomfortable.

Infrastructure Investment

There is an enormous amount of space in Myers Park that is donated to the public realm. While this land did not directly achieve a profit, there was no question on the part of George Stephens to its necessity in the development. Because of the inclusion of the streetcar, a larger amount of public space was necessary as part of the streetscape. But even so, the desire for open, country living allowed for a green infrastructure to infiltrate the city. Along with it comes ecosystems and a green lung that positively affects the people who spend time there.

Today many developers are focused on a turn on profit. Public open space and investments in the public realm do not receive a direct profit. Recently, cheap housing prices and large amounts of space attracted buyers, despite little investment into making their neighborhood feel unique.

A site plan showing the connectivity of the Myers Park street network. (http://www.mpha.com/images/area5-map.jpg)

Despite these very important and crucial urban design qualities, there is no doubt that Myers Park is still very much a suburb. Even with its modern-day central location, it does not feel urban. The reasons for this is that it is lacking two very distinctive urban qualities that would make it a completely sustainable development: density and mixed uses. Because of the trends of the time, these qualities were purposefully neglected. People wanted space from denser urban living and the streetcar allowed easy accessibility to the city center for daily necessities. Over time commercial uses have become established nearby. However, the large plots and low density make walking there a less attractive option than hopping in your car. But, it can be done. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood were walking from my house to the old Black Forest toy store with my grandmother.

As I was researching Myers Park’s history, the drive for development built around public transportation reminded me of another part of Charlotte that saw a boom of development recently based on its location near the new Charlotte light rail system. In the same spirit as Myers Park’s development, mixed-use high density and multi-family housing, and restaurants sprung up along the South Boulevard corridor. While the light rail system isn’t expanding at a rate fast enough to satisfy urban designers, planners, and even citizens, it has shown to be a powerful and unparalleled catalyst for redevelopment and sustainable growth.

Poetically, the reintroduction of the streetcar is happening at this very moment along a main corridor in Elizabeth. Time will tell its modern-day success, but I have faith that the streetcar will encourage the same sustainable growth that it did 100 years ago. In a time when the car is so prevalent, will the streetcar return glory to the city?

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