Article: Does light rail really reduce congestion?

PolitiFact.com, launched by the former St Petersburg Times, has become one of the more looked-to and respected mediums of “fact checking”, especially during election season. This November election presents a critical referendum for Pinellas County, “Greenlight Pinellas“. Without going into detail, I’ll note that it stipulates a sales tax increase for a major transportation package that would include light rail. Naturally, the Tea Party has emerged with the aggressive “No Tax for Tracks” campaigning. One of their points was that light rail does not actually reduce traffic congestion. PolitiFact decided to fact check that claim, and dubbed it with the “half-true” mark on the scale. I’ve shared the article and explanation itself because it presents that very interesting question. The answer is much more complicated. No, LRT (light rail transit) is not a wizzardly magical method to eliminate road congestion. Yes, it does reduce it over time. Rail transit does much more, that is often disregarded. Improves quality of life, improves economic opportunities, elevates a metro area’s status, improves aestetic and improves the enviroment….in addition to reducing congestion.

I won’t ramble on any further. See the article for yourself here.

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Commentary: Civic Pride

This is a brief departure for facts, scenarios, empirical data and the like. Just a quick, drippy opinion piece on civic pride and what it is.

Anyone who knows me is aware of how important the concept of “place” is to me. The Atlantic Cities (an online publication of The Atlantic magazine) slogan is “Place Matters”. Couldn’t better define how I feel on the matter. Place, not just in the sense of a noun. Place, as what locale you are connected to. Home, a hometown, school, work, a regular meeting spot. Anything. Any locale that is a part of your life and a part of your personality. In high school, we all wanted to get the hell out of our hometown. That seems like common nature amongst angsty teenagers. Especially if you’ve spent your entire life in the same place. You could be in Midtown Manhattan or the Gangam District of Seoul, but in the high school parking lot, “this town is so boring. I’ve gotta get out.” I was always a little different from that norm. I spent my entire life in the same city, just like most of my friends. And I wanted change. I looked forward to college and the life beyond in exciting, bigger cities, like many of my friends. But I had no animosity towards Tampa, my hometown. I planned to visit often in the short term, and ultimately return in the long term. But this is not about Tampa, or my hopelessly romantic love towards it. It’s about hometowns, and about place.

What’s home? Where are you from? Those questions can often evoke confusion. Especially if the answer is preceded by “My dad was in the military”. If you lived in ten different places for no longer than a few years each, where is home, really? Who cares what a hometown is materialized from. The city you were born in, the city you grew up in, the city you currently live in…hell, even the city you went to college in. And I use the word “city”, in a most general sense. Do we connect to the municipal boundaries of our incorporated city? Or, the metro area and its surrounding towns and cities as a whole? Or our entire region? State? Country? Or just our neighborhood. That’s why the answers will always be different. People should be proud of their “hometown”. Whatever “place” they choose to associate with. Maybe it’s more than one. It is for me. Your “place” is a part of what makes you who you are, for better or worse. Take pride. Even if you’ve lived in to many cities, towns and unincorporated census-designated places to ever keep track of, walk outside. Take pride in where you are. Your surroundings. What makes it iconic. What makes it unique.

So if you ever encounter me, remember my three biggest “pet peeves”. First, the term “pet peeve”. Second, loud eaters. Close third…people who respond to the question of where they’re from with a state. Texas is a big place to be from. Russia is a big country. Give me a city. Even if I’ve never heard of it, be proud of it. Remember…place matters.

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Orlando Rising

Tokyo-level density to go right across the street from one of I-Drive's seven Golden Corrals

Tokyo-level density to go right across the street from one of I-Drive’s seven Golden Corrals

I am personally starting to grow tired of Orlando this, Orlando that….”oh have you heard about what they’re doing in Orlando?”. Yes. Give it a rest. Okay. Maybe it’s more envy than anything. After all, Orlando seems to be on the fast-track (pun, tied in below, intended) to become the gleaming metropolis of Florida. Those who know me as the Tampa man that I am can see me green with envy, watching from eighty miles west down I-4. Watching as Tampa embarks on one of the biggest roadway infrastructure CF’s ever witnessed north of Miami. Watching as its main arterial freeway is choked from eight lanes down to two for construction, only to ultimately allocate for five hundred lanes with an anticipated completion of some indefinite period in the distant future. Orlando is about to get the ball rolling on a similar expansion of I-4 next year…but they’re taking steps in the right direction elsewhere. Just how much is going on in Orlando, seemingly all of the sudden?

Sultry in orange...the look of SunRail's rolling stock

Sultry in orange…the look of SunRail’s rolling stock

The Wizzardring World of Harry Potter phase two, of course! Diagon Alley! That is, of course, the only thing an “Orlando” search term currently queries. For anyone with  their head not up their own posterior, and/or who cares about more than three-hour lines in 137 degree temperatures, there is of course SunRail. The second major commuter rail system in the Sunshine State, following South Florida’s Tri-Rail (which opened over twenty years ago). SunRail opened its first phase back on May 1 and follows the CSX/Amtrak R.O.W. from a station at Sand Lake Road (in Pine Castle, not horribly far from MCO airport) to DeBary. Extensions by 2017 will draw it south to Kissimmee and Poinciana and north to DeLand. As of now, it services Downtown Orlando (bringing rail life back to Church Street for the first time in decades), Winter Park, Maitland and the Longwood/Lake Mary Area. It also directly links to two major medical centers (Orlando Health and Florida Hospital), a critical piece of the puzzle considering the area’s burgeoning healthcare industry. The rolling stock is quite handsome as well, if I do say so myself. Naturally, the naysayers were doubting the system’s success from the day it was first proposed. The first few weeks of service were fare free, a sort of soft opening. Once revenue collection began, there was an obvious drop-off in ridership. BUT, the current ridership figures actually remain slightly above what FDOT had forecasted for this period. The anti-rail blockheads have their feet so far down their throats now, all they can point to are the three vehicle-locomotive collisions at crossings that have occurred in the last few months. Us Floridians aren’t used to stopping for that ding-ding and those flashing red lights when a choo-choo is chuggin’ along.  And yes, I can joke as much as I please because no one was injured. In short time, wheels are already turning to get going on development of Phase Two for the system.

Orange locomotives. I'm beginning to see a pattern...

Orange locomotives. I’m beginning to see a pattern…

Well…is that all that’s going on? Nosiree. Florida East Coast Railway’s “All Aboard Florida” is also the cat’s meow of the Florida rail scene. While the name isn’t the most practical, this is going to be a dramatic recharge for America’s passenger intercity rail game. The country’s first “major” privately owned-and-operated passenger rail system since Amtrak sucked the last breath of life out of Penn Central in 1977. This transit titan of a system would…okay, I’ll stop being pessimistic…will run from Miami to Orlando. And…maybe….God willing….someday to Tampa. It will use FEC’s existing R.O.W. from Miami to Brevard County, then somehow get itself a corridor to get itself to Orlando, since railcars don’t take to running on wet swampland particularly well.  For that link, FEC wants to borrow $405 million (of the total $1.5 billion cost). So, no the project is not entirely privately funded. Stop points would be large, to-be-built facilities in Miami, Ft Lauderdale and Palm Beach….all leading to a bodacious inter-modal center at Orlando International Airport. But…..what about all those fine little towns in between? What about “The Treasure Coast” and The Space Coast? Nope. No trains for you. Martin, St Lucie, Indian River and Brevard Counties will bear the brunt (traffic congestion, noise, safety and environmental concerns) of frequent rail service without the obvious advantage of being served by the systems. Hence, they’re rather bitter towards the proposal and have vowed to do all they can to stop it. They are self-declared “not all aboard” with All Aboard Florida. Cute, eh? But the trackage is FEC’s own property. Private industry FTW.

They clearly don't have the funds to complete this system, given it's about to derail

They clearly don’t have the funds to complete this system, given it’s about to derail

Alright, alright so lots of trains in Orlando. Anything else…? Yes! More trains! But not just any trains…MAGLEV TRAINS. The mode of the future! And yes, it warrants all caps. Maglev is that downright nifty medium of transit one always hears of in Japan. A powerful electromagnetic current is propelled down a monorail beam. Souped-up magnets beneath the vehicles latch to it (as magnets often do) and are jettisoned along the track. The magnetic effect elevates the cars, eliminating friction thus allowing them to go at super-duper-fast speeds. And Maglev may be coming to Orlando. Another private venture recently approved by FDOT, to run all the way between Orlando Airport and the Orlando Convention Center. Over 350 miles per hour is the only acceptable speed to traverse that staggeringly long distance of a few miles. The system would also be privately owned-and-operated. While it has the tentative red-tape green light from FDOT, all the money to fund it remains invisible. It would carry a capital cost of nearly $400 million and a top speed of only 50 miles per hour. So why the expensive and flashy Maglev medium, instead of a more practical and cost-effective people mover system? To make a point, presumably. The first Maglev outside of the Far East, right here in the U S of A. Brought to you by American Maglev Industries. The corridor itself makes sense. The mode? Not so much. Lofty and ambitious, at best.

Lot’s of choo-choo’s chuggin’ away in “the 407″. I’ve dithered on about these projects for so long that I’ve allowed little time for everything else. Out of reasons of utility and laziness, I won’t go into detail about some of the major commercial developments proposed for Orange County. One development slated for International Drive looks as if it was transported from Tokyo. 160,210 square feet of retail, 48,418 square feet of meeting rooms, 1,253 hotel rooms in two towers, not to mention an ice-skating rink and revolving restaurant. Some of the other projects proposed for the area are equally impressive. The expansive, mixed-use, high-density, urban aesthetic may finally transform it from a cheap, tacky, tourist, parking lot, gift shop, Sizzler buffet wasteland.  Another 7.3 acre site near the Amway Center will be locale of a major mixed-use development, as the market prepares to welcome its new MLS soccer club. 2013 generated a total of $5 billion in property sales for Central Florida, according to the Orlando Business Journal.

And we harken back to the I-4 expansion noted earlier, that will allow the option of tolled-express lanes to alleviate traffic congestion. Lots of progress in Orlando this year. Of all the growth and development, the frozen butterbeer in The Wizzardring World of Harry Potter still can’t be beat.

Left in the shadows…

Well we are back from a summer hiatus. I spent the majority of my summer in Tampa but also traveled quite a bit, visiting Raleigh, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Cleveland and other destinations. Not to mention the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina. These were my first visits to Chicago and Toronto in quite a long time and I came back with quite a few observations, but I’ll save those for a later date. I’ll just cast my opinion out there that both of those cities are far superior to New York. I also had the opportunity to experience plenty of train travel , in both the United States and Canada, regionally and overnight long distance. Comparisons between North America’s rail systems will also come at a later date. (Spoiler alert: Via Rail Canada puts Amtrak to shame). Anyway, onward with a topic I’d began theorizing about way back in December…

FDOT construction has created some "natural beauty" along the corridor.

FDOT construction has created some “natural beauty” along the US-19 corridor.

Like I said, this is something that has been on my mind for many months. It was a recent lecture in my class on transportation planning processes that got me thinking about it again. Anyone who lives in, or spends any time at all in Pinellas County, is all familiar with US-19. That ulcer-inducing, rage-generating, cholesterol-clogged central artery thru the unhealthy individual that is Pinellas County. That stretch of the federal highway gets national notoriety, and not the positive kind. It comes up most often in statistics relating to pedestrian deaths, vehicular accidents and of course, traffic congestion. In fact, a study on Dateline NBC categorized it as the most dangerous road in the United States. A 5-year NHTSA study determined there to be 52 deaths a year, on average, with over a fifth being pedestrian fatalities. Clearly, its lethal status is viewed as the primary concern. But traffic congestion comes in second place. But…a major highway in Florida with traffic problems? Nonsense!

A former strip mall demolished before the project began. Plans to redevelop the tract came to a halt once road work started.

A former strip mall demolished before the project began. Plans to redevelop the tract came to a halt once road work started.

FDOT has been undertaking a massive improvement project on the highway for a number of years now. Billions of dollars and years of roadwork (creating more congestion) will ultimately be the solution. At least that seems to be the Florida planning mantra. The solution itself is the common concept to migrate traffic from a conventional, at-grade highway to an elevated expressway. Thru traffic takes to the elevated lanes while local traffic accessing points along the road take to the grade-level frontage roads. It’s been done many times before all around the country, and is proven to alleviate traffic jams. The stretch of 19 from around Gandy and Park Blvd north of Largo to Bellair Road, then from Gulf-to-Bay in Clearwater north to Countryside Blvd has been partially completed. That gap between Bellair and Gulf-to-Bay is currently in the works. A similar attempt was made at doing the same to North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in the 1970s. The project never fully materialized but did result in the elevated intersections with Hillsborough Avenue and Busch Boulevard. So, the project along 19 (and future similar projects around the country) seem to take care of our traffic concerns. But, in transportation planning in Florida, whenever we take a step forward, we have to take two steps backwards. And this does just that.

More examples of businesses simply closing up shop along the corridor.

More examples of businesses simply closing up shop along the corridor.

How so? Notice the key factor of the concept: thru traffic is moved up above the businesses. Only those specifically knowing what businesses they are going to will actually be on the street. Thus eliminating the idea of driving, noticing a local business, and stopping in. Now, I’m not going to go into great detail on this. I’m not an expert on highway planning by any means. I don’t even know the technical terms for this sort of project, much less have any statistics on its impacts on roadside businesses. I will say this – going out and about, at the street level, any person can notice this does not seem to help business. As the latest portion of 19 is now becoming elevated, more and more businesses are relocating, or shuttering altogether. This is not only because they don’t want to be a blip on a frontage road, but because these shops, restaurants and even homes will literally be in the shadow of a massive overpass. And who wants that? The construction alone is destroying the economic corridor. Everyone (understandably) wants to avoid that mess. In large, they’re willing to do business elsewhere. And even once it is complete, whose going to take the time to exit on to a frontage road, and look for a place to eat, when they can’t even see what is down there? Some certainly will. But the vast majority will pass right on by.

Carrabba's chose to relocate a few blocks away on Gulf to Bay, where they will retain regular road access. Many other businesses, however, do not have the means to do so.

Carrabba’s chose to relocate a few blocks away on Gulf to Bay, where they will retain regular road access. Many other businesses, however, do not have the means to do so.

Those businesses who have the money are moving altogether, getting away from 19 while they still can. Others are closing down. Some simply hope to bear the downturn to inevitably come along. The day I went out and took photos back in December, I was shocked. The area under construction had changed so much in the last year. Prior to the start of work, it was an economically thriving corridor. Traffic was terrible, yes, but business was good. All of the sudden, it has been transformed into a construction wasteland. Parcels of land were used just for dirt storage and construction staging. It seemed like a quarter of the businesses had been shuttered. The area was lifeless, except for a homeless population. The days dreary weather also helped with the mood. I spoke to someone who said how they couldn’t wait for the construction to be over. Unfortunately, once the entire area is under an overpass, things will probably get worse. The project along US-19 will likely make getting between St Petersburg and Clearwater much quicker and easier. The fact that pedestrians will not be allowed (or have any need to be) on the upper roadway will do great things for safety. However, when I drive along, looking down at the frontage roads and see all of the abandoned businesses, I know life below and overpass can’t be pristine. It will be difficult to imagine any way this major corridor of the county can economically thrive once it is left in the shadows.

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Fall of the Mall…

Shopping malls are a traditional part of our retail economy, and a very diverse one. They have had a very interesting history and live a very unique lifespan. First things first, Mall Hall of Fame is a spectacular resource on the subject. State-by-state, is a growing list of a majority of America’s shopping malls. There it provides vivid history of each retail center, including maps of how they have grown and changed over the years and pictures. It has a wealth of pictures and insight, and includes articles on various subjects such as department stores, various mall developers, dead malls and mall terminology. It also has articles capturing the average American mall experience, decade by decade. Relating to today’s “case study”, the Mall of 1970 article is a great reference. The point of focus today is none other than Tampa’s Westshore Plaza. The section on Tampa Bay and Sarasota area malls can be found here. One shortcoming is that I cannot link directly to articles, but the Westshore entry begins at the bottom of the third page. It includes history of all Bay Area malls, sans Tampa Bay Center, Sarasota’s Southgate Square and a couple of others. Westshore Mall is a senior, but by no means a pioneer. The first “mall” is subject to much debate. The first organized, planned retail center was Seattle’s Bellvue Shopping Square, opened 1946. Of course some point to indoor marketplaces, such as one in Providence, Rhode Island dating back two centuries. Centers such as that in Europe are even older. Many do agree, however, the first modern mall was none other than Southdale Center, in suburban Minneapolis, which opened in 1956. Entirely indoors, two floors, two anchor department stores. It is still around today. The first modern mall in Florida opened in 1962. Westshore was merely the Tampa Bay Area’s first, opening in 1967.

Westshore Plaza, in the good old days.

Westshore Plaza, in the good old days.

The average shopping mall has a lifespan of 30 years. That said, Westshore is an anomaly and success story, checking in at 45+ years and still kicking. It totally outlived the much bigger and more glamorous Tampa Bay Center, watching it come and go. And it has given International Plaza a run for its money. So far. The original mall was the corridor between JCPenney and Maas Brothers (now Macy’s), plus a Woolworths and Pantry Pride grocery store. The corridor leading to Robinson’s (now Sears) and the attached parking garage was added in 1974. The grocery store was converted to the food court in the early 1980s. The entire mall was extensively renovated, giving it it’s current Mediterranean Revival theme in the early 1990s. Saks Fifth Avenue opened in 1998. Finally, the looping corridor, Old Navy, AMC Theaters, sit-down restaurants and renovated food court came in like around 2000. The last two expansions were in anticipation of International Plaza. Most recently, a large H&M has come along. Unfortunately, Westshore has now made local headlines as this Saturday (May 4), Saks Fifth Avenue will be closing. And with no plans to reopen in the Bay Area. Making matters worse, the retailer is opening a larger store at Sarasota’s new University Town Center near Lakewood Ranch. Tampa is loosing a major retailer and Westshore Plaza is loosing a critical anchor.

A sad sight as the doors prepare to close.

A sad sight as the doors prepare to close.

The only solace? Well, for one – Dick’s Sporting Goods is immediately taking over the parcel, developing a massive new “flagship concept store”, their first foray into South Tampa. Of course this will likely kill the nearby Sports Authority store. Additionally, one thing not mentioned by the media is just how much Saks is hurting at the national level. Westshore is in fact not the only store closing. Some five other locations, including the only one in the enormous Dallas market, will be shuttered as well. Retail analysts also continue to blame the Westshore Plaza decline, but fail to mention Saks poor location within the mall, literally at the very back. The store sits at the end of a dark corridor that has never had luck keeping tenants, and against the interstate. Perhaps it was doomed from the start. A great article ran in the tbt*, making ends of all the analysis but I cannot seem to find it (two strikes for my references today). Here, however, is the most detailed Times article.

 

Get em while you can

Get em while you can

So, what does this mean for Westshore? Many have been pointing out the malls decline in clientele for years now. With Macy’s as the most luxurious anchor, who knows what will come. The high-end Palm steakhouse has been struggling for some time now. The mall tries to position itself to the hoity-toity South Tampa crowd with its Pinkberry and high-end AMC. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. Once Dick’s replaces Saks, there is no telling what will become of the center. One can only hope that the new H&M will keep it on its feet. Sink or swim, to avoid a fate of becoming the next University Mall in ten years. Traditional malls are already an endangered species, which is why I was shocked at the news of one opening in Sarasota (The Mall at University Town Center), and a high-end Taubman developed center at that. The outdoor “lifestyle centers” are the new trend, such as Wiregrass Commons and the redeveloped Clearwater Mall and Pinnelas Parkside Mall. I tend to think these rule out shopping in pouring rain and extreme heat, one advantage traditional malls carry. One can only hope that Westshore will be able to persevere in this quickly changing climate. One can also hope that traditional indoor malls will make a comeback, at least in regions with extreme weather. I can assure that there will be more commentary on this subject down the road, especially as changes at Westshore begin to take shape. Malls around America are changing. Dramatically. And I can tell you the sight in Saks today was a sad one. All I can say is, grab your signature Saks Fifth Avenue Tampa snow globe while you can.

Progress?

Proposed rendering: the complex would be opened up to Channelside drive and include overhead pedways. Courtesy of Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Proposed rendering: the complex would be opened up to Channelside drive and include overhead pedways. Courtesy of Tampa Bay Business Journal.

It seems like every time this region takes a step forward, it takes a step backward as well. The Channelside conundrum seems to finally have an answer coming forward after years of debate and decline. The roughly decade-old facility has lost unique establishments such as Stumpp’s Supper Club, Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar, Ghallaher’s Steak House and now its movie theater. And none of the clubs announced seem to make it past the planning stages. Now an organization called Liberty Channelside LLC  has come forward and finally bought the contract for the complex and announced ambitious plans for redevelopment. As one spokesman for the group puts it, “Our vision is to transform Channelside from an event venue to a distinctive mixed-use lifestyle center to include office, retail, hotel and restaurant and bar uses”. But like I’ve said, talk is cheap. Projects like that are expensive. And slow. And whatever happened to Lightning-owner Jeff Vinik’s group that was so set on saving the area? The Channel District has a great deal of potential. It, along with Soho, make the up-and-coming residential communities in the Bay Area for young, urban professionals. The District is scattered with hundreds and hundreds of high-tier loft apartments and supporting businesses, in addition to the high rise Towers of Channelside. Not to mention neat events such as the weekly “Flicks and Food Trucks”. Let’s just hope the Liberty group finally comes through with the much needed commercial support for Channelside, Downtown and Harbor Island residents, cruise passengers and the downtown lunch crowd. At least this deal is finally in ink (pending Port Authority approval, obviously).

TPA's vision for the future showing an expanded Airside C, new D and ATC. Courtesy of HCAA.

TPA’s vision for the future showing an expanded Airside C, new D and ATC. Courtesy of HCAA.

The Aviation Authority has at last approved Tampa International Airport’s equally expansive master plan, that will still save millions of dollars. In addition a consolidated car rental complex and transit hub connected to the terminal via people mover, it will details a build-out of Airside’s C and D as international arrivals hubs, thus eliminating the need for a second north terminal in the next two decades. It also allocates for extensive growth of the existing landslide building adding new concessions and services. One caveat: the airport’s Marriott Hotel stands in the way of the expansion and will be demolished in 5 to 10 years. There is space slated for a new hotel, although it’s on the south end of the property, near where economy parking currently is located. One of the numerous areas of convince for the airport is the fact that a hotel is within a few hundred steps from ticketing, baggage claim and gates. That’s something few US airports have (DFW, Miami, Detroit, Houston). That’s a great advantage the airport will loose. It also left me raising this question: what will become of the unique revolving restaurant? Will this new hotel include one? Within days, it was announced that the hotel, with no input from the airport, will be closing CK’s Revolving Rooftop Restaurant on June 29. A great, unique feature of the Tampa Bay Area that will be lost.

A supporter-created proposal from "Stop the Lens".

A supporter-created proposal from “Stop the Lens”.

Let’s hop across the bay, shall we, and see another truly unique feature of the region. The St Petersburg Pier. That inverted triangle, modernist masterpiece that could just use a bit of investment, thought and revamping, just like the airport and Channelside. Much of the community agrees, but St Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster does not. Instead he has pushed forward controversy plans for “The Lens”, a replacement project for the pier. Public outcry has been evoked, mainly critiquing this new pier’s lack of…well…anything. It really seems like a giant circle out in the water that people can walk around. Media renderings show really neat light shows being projected into the water and sky but let’s get real, will that really get past environmentalists? The campaign has grown to the point that ‘Stop the Lens’ yard signs are seen all around the affluently historic Old Northeast neighborhood and a pubic petition has garnered the necessary 16,000+ signatures. A grassroots campaign has even come forward with proposals to rehabilitate the existing pier. But Mayor Foster doesn’t seem to care. The Pier will be closed for demolition on May 31. What are the business tenants going to do? They don’t really know. Foster doesn’t seem to care. He will also have the blood of the Rays on his hands, if the team gets fed up with being held to Tropicana Field for another decade plus, and decide to leave the region altogether. The Pier has become as much of a visual landmark as Plant Hall’s Minarets and the pink castle of the Don Cesar. And soon it will be in the local, gift-shop history books.

The Pier, in the good old days.

The St Pete Pier, in the good old days.

Finally, lets zero in on the bustling Westshore business district. Large new office buildings, apartment developments and retailers continue to spring up. The area has recently welcomed The Container Store (exciting!) as well as a handful of affluent new restaurants (such as Coopers Hawk Winery and Eddie V’s Steaks and Seafood). Plus South Tampa’s Wawa is set to open in the next few weeks. The Pennsylvania-based gourmet 7-Eleven knockoff has taken the area by storm. Unfamiliar people point out that there is no way to intelligently say the name, while devout northern fans praise the “great, custom sandwiches and coffee. They’re just great.” Great. New locations were scattered across the Orlando area first, then Tampa Bay. Wawa is now present near USF, on Gandy Blvd in St Pete among other places, soon to be located on Dale Mabry between I-275 and Kennedy. I’ll admit, the establishments are quite nice on the inside and do offer fee-free ATM’s. And one more new business coming to the area is always good news.

But…it has to be marred with the loss of a major business as well. Today, the Times broke a story that Saks Fifth Avenue at Westshore Plaza is set to close in May, with the retailer pulling out of the market all together. The only solace is that Dick’s Sporting Goods is already in line to replace it with a “flagship” store, the first in South Tampa. However, the loss of a major luxury retailer like Saks, which opened here in 1998, is detrimental to the Bay Area. For years now, I’ve speculated about when Bloomingdales would open in Tampa (given the nearest location is in Orlando). But from the looks of things, big name big bucks stores aren’t going to be opening here anytime soon. Needless to say, high profile stores like Bloomingdales won’t be opening around here in the near future. Tossing in my own personal opinion, I don’t think the Saks closure has as much to do with this market and demand, as much as it does its pathetic location at the very back of an empty corridor in Westshore Plaza. The mall itself is coming back around developing that quadrant with things like Grimaldi’s Pizza and a large H&M (just a mile from the International Plaza location), but its still to little to late for Saks. The retailer still has a commanding presence in Sarasota as they’ve announced plans for a larger location at the new Mall at University Town Center. Maybe Sarasota is Florida’s next up-and-coming city.

Tampa is taking big strides. Bob Buckhorn is doing all he possibly can to let downtown show all of its potential. But unanticipated economic factors, poorly managed businesses, Tea Party extremists and hinderers such as Mayor Bill Foster are coming equally together to pull us back. Forgive my pessimism and finger pointing. News today like the loss of a major retail anchor is bleak. Hopefully, we will see twice as much forward motion in the weeks and months to come.

Down the road…

Everybody knows I’m rather slow on here, I go from bouts of way to much free time to extreme busy periods, so much of what is posted here comes in clusters. Honestly can’t give any indication to how long it will be until all of these come to fruition, but here’s a preview of some topics to come:

Airports – Straightforward enough and a topic near to me. TPA has some fairly ambitious expansion plans and we’ll also take a look at what’s on the radar for other Florida airports such as Miami and Orlando, as well as Atlanta. Additionally, a glimpse into regional air carriers such as Florida’s Silver Airways and Boston’s Cape Air, and their strengths and weaknesses.

Shopping Malls - Something else I love equally to department stores. A bit about the rise and fall of the traditional mall, some of America’s finest examples and what’s next for the concept.

Tampa Version 2.0 – I just cannot stop poetically expressing my hopes for that cities future and I’ll get into one of those maudlin and overly sentimental  tirades. Get excited.

A concept for hopeful planning and city management – My novel yet simple proposal for public administration at the city and county level, and how to actually make a difference.

Channelside – Honestly bored of hearing about this lost Tampa treasure, at one time there was some spectacular potential but who knows now.

Sports teams – A look at what sports teams say about, and the effect they have one a city’s culture and identity. (Tampa would probably be a bad example for this one).

Disney World and Epcot – One of my favorite topics and plenty to say on this one. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Beyond those topics, I may get into talk about Tampa’s Hard Rock casino, the thrills of Wawa coming to the Bay Area and subcultures and identities of various parts of a city.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has ever even just glanced at the Meridiem. It is greatly appreciated and feedback is always welcome. Thank you for staying tuned.

There Go the Airlines…

The very first commentary on here regarded American Airlines radical shift in design and presentation, the unveiling of the “new” look and new long-haul cabins, back on January 17. I had nothing but praise for the airline, taking these great strides in the wake of bankruptcy emergence. Finally trying to get on par with international carriers. Give the the US a carrier to be proud of, American none the less. But on February 14, they made another magnanimous announcement: a “merger”-termed takeover of US Airways. Tempe, Airzona based US Airways Group (once the parent company of America West Airlines) had expressed interest in themselves taking over Dallas based AMR Corporation (American’s parentals), and by the books, this is an equal merger. But from the looks of things already (such as a consolidation of operations at Dallas and US Airways exiting the Star Alliance and migrating to American’s One World alliance), it appears AMR/American will come out on top. US Airways already “merged” with America West. While they moved operations out to Phoenix, the America West name bit the dust. So what does this mean? Oh it means the merged American-US Airways will be the largest airline in the world. Sound familiar? The newly merged United-Continental was the largest airline in the world. The newly merged Delta-Northwest was the largest airline in the world. The three new carriers (American, United, Delta) will control roughly 75% of the US air travel market. It also means what was once six airlines are now three. And let’s not forget last years Southwest-AirTran get together. While operations are still isolated, it looks like a consolidation and phasing out of the AirTran name is down the line.

So what does this really mean?

First, its spelling the gradual end of the so-called “legacy carriers”. We’ve seen National, Braniff, Western, Pan Am, Eastern, TWA, Northwest and Continental all bite the dust. The only classic airlines that remain now are Delta, United and American. So what? So you’re not a nostalgic luddite such as myself. Well less competition is always a bad thing. The fact that no anti-trust courts have stepped up or even said anything about this consolidation of airlines is unnerving. Well…the same thing did happen with railroads in the 1950s and 1960s. Consolidation. And what was the eventual fate? The jet age had torpedoed railroading so much that it literally was dead. What little passenger rail demand remaining was consolidated under the government-run Amtrak by 1977. And still is. The need for a privately run passenger rail line is another debate, for another day. So what’s gonna happen? Amflight? Anyone who has used Amtrak outside of California, Chicago or the Northeast Corridor would shutter at the thought of that. One things for sure…small airports are hurting. Not only do airlines consolidate, but their existing routes consolidate as well. Let’s say a mid-sized airport has two flights to Boston in the span of an hour and a half: one on American and one on US Airways. Obviously…this ultimately translates to one flight in that time. And even though routes don’t overlap that much, fewer carriers does mean less gate space and sometimes less employees. Airports such as Sarasota-Bradenton are already feeling the effects. They now have half the airline presence and have the market share to major destinations.

So what happens next?

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I have no idea. What’s the worst? Some experts are predicting that in the future, there will be so few airlines that each one will take over one region of the country. Their hub operations will offer service to the other regions, via competing carriers; but all of the other airports will only have service to those hubs…by the one regional airline. Each airport only being served by one airline. One airline serving one or two hub destinations. The inconvenient nature is terrible enough. Not to mention the fact that it’s a literal monopoly in every since of the word. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. Hopefully anti-trust protections would never allow it, even though they’ve let it come this far. What’s the norm? It will get worse. Fewer airlines to fewer direct destinations. Less competition which means higher prices and less need to be “good”. But a few (“old-fashioned” by the future’s standards) non-hub, low-cost airlines such as Southwest will fill in the gaps as much as they can. What’s the best? New airlines. New startups. New standards. There will never be another US Airways, never another Northwest. But maybe new future airlines can fill up those empty gates and ticket counters.

Finally, a tip of the hat in a paying of respects to US Airways, formally US Air, formally Allegheny Airlines. A once Pittsburgh-based northeast airline, long long ago. An airline I used to regularly fly, long long ago. And a tip of the cap to all those they took over in their own life…San Diego-based Pacific Southwest Airlines, Charlotte-based Piedmont Airlines and American West. And all those airlines taken over in the last ten years. And all the long deceased legacy carriers while we’re at it. May they all rest in peace.

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A Homage to Bob B…

I’ll be frank and forward. In Tampa’s last mayoral race, I voted for Dick Greco. The guy is just cool, ok. I’ll even be so indiscreet as to admit I didn’t even bother learning his stances…I just thought it’d be neat for the youngest mayor in Tampa’s history to then be the oldest. My second choice was a draw between Rose Ferlitta, a decent Repubican that I knew nothing about, and Ed Turanchik. In retrospect, Ed should have been my choice considering all of his strides for enhanced transit in the region, his fight for the 2012 Olympics (yeah pretty sure everyone forgot about that) and the fact that he’s just a good guy. The only one I was not considering, was Bobby B. And I was a bit disappointed when won. Boy have I done a 180. Falling on the footsteps Tuesday’s “State of the City” address, I’d like to recite my praise.

Buckhorn making his State of the City address inside the historic Kress Building. Photo credit to Skip O'Rourke, Tampa Bay Times.

Buckhorn making his State of the City address inside the historic Kress Building. Photo credit to Skip O’Rourke, Tampa Bay Times.

I know it’s a bit early to call, and a bit lofty, but I honestly feel that Bob Buckhorn will likely go in the books as one of Tampa’s greatest mayors, along the levels of Nick Nuccio, Curtis Hixon, Bill Poe and Bob Martinez. And at the very least, a two-termer. Right off the mark, I started noticing positive changes once he took office. First it was a lot of talk. Talk is cheap, but this wasn’t just hot talk…these were tangible, practical ideas. The challenge would be to put these ideas into motion. I also noticed things like the addition of a right turn lane on northbound Dale Mabry at the disgustingly congested Kennedy intersection. Not sure if he really had any say in that decision, or if it was just good timing. A couple of years later, I am singing this man’s praises. Alright, this is not a place for politics but I just want to share a few highlights of Buckhorn’s freshman term so far:

 

1. 2012 RNC

Buckhorn is a loud and proud Democrat. He was a very open campaigner for President Obama in both elections. He was even an alternate delegate last year in Charlotte. But I’ve not seen someone work so hard for an event as he did for the Republican convention. He even went so far as to take the “Occupiers” to task, reminding them that they have a place to protest. But if they want someplace to sleep, go home or check into a hotel. It goes without saying that the entire event (sans the little hurricane event) was as well run as it could have possibly been. Buckhorn openly shared his acclimation with police chief Jane Castor and host committee chair Al Austin. All week he was seen beaming with pride on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and more. He gets two check pluses for this: first for exemplifying the essence of bipartisan leadership, putting R’s and D’s aside for the good of your city, state or country; second, for helping Tampa put on such a great show on the center-state of America.

2. Downtown Revival

I’ve talked before about the strides Downtown Tampa has taken. Just walking around anytime of day or night, it is obvious. To be fair, it was Mayor Iorio who first got the wheels turning. The redevelopment of Curtis Hixon Park, the new Tampa Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum launched the genesis of the new downtown. These fixtures, against the backdrop of the Skypoint and Element high rise residences and the Riverwalk create a perfect postcard of the new downtown. The Tampa Riverwalk was Iorio’s greatest task…she got it started and Buckhorn is finally finishing it. Aside from that, public works programs such as new sidewalks, park improvements and public art are abundant. Perhaps the most eye catching is the Light Up Tampa art/light displays projected against the river bridges. All of these elements make for an ascetically stunning urban center. The private sector is moving things rapidly. New hotels such as the restored Hotel Floridan and renovated Hyatt-turned-Hilton are already in place. The boutique hotel in the old federal courthouse, the Aloft at Kennedy and Ashley and 3 other hotel projects are in the works. New restaurants and bars are springing up everywhere. The only dark spot remains the block occupied by the abandoned Kress, Newburry and Woolworth buildings. These iconic architecture masterpieces have been awaiting transformation for years. A quick restoration turned them into party venues during the RNC, alas it was only temporary. The area surrounding them changing so radically will hopefully usher their own improvement soon. The fact that Buckhorn’s State of the City was given inside the Kress building, points that it is clearly a priority for him as well.

Perhaps the greatest transformation is the channel district. 25 years ago, this was a desolate, dangerous and dark industrial area of nothing but warehouses and port facilities. The relocation of these facilities to Hookers Point marked the new beginning, launched with Harbor Island, the Convention Center and the Forum; then continued with the Aquarium, the new cruise terminals and Channelside. Yes Channelside is a critical struggle as more business close. But if the financial bank mumbo jumbo can just be taken care of, and Lightning-owner Jeff Vinik can just take over, his ambitious redevelopment plans will surely usher in a new era. Perhaps the great step is the residential transformation. The twin high-rise towers complement the sea of chic, yuppie loft apartment developments, as far as the eye can see. At ground level neat restaurants and bars run alongside Stageworks Theater, Powerhouse Gym and occasional food truck rallies. This area is certainly on the move, as it’s bridge towards Ybor City becomes more solid.

3. Transit Strides

So much positive change is happening. But there’s one enormous piece of the puzzle missing: that stubborn little transit one. And while no major strides have been made in years, that may very well be Buckhorn’s number one task now. It was certainly a highlight of the State of the City: “We can be a region with a first-class transportation system. We need mobility options now. That means bus rapid transit, that means (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), and it darn sure means rail.” He went on to rail against (no pun intended) Tallahassee: “Don’t tell me that I have to listen to the mayor of Detroit thank me because he’s building his light rail system with our money. If folks in Tallahassee don’t want to support us, we’ll find folks in Tallahassee that will.” Yes, this is still little more than hot talk. But between his own ambition, that of agencies such as TBARTA, HART and PSTA, county commissioners, city councilmen and private moneymen such as Al Austin, there is hope. A city-only referendum for transit will be key.

Other points addressed included: Tampa’s status as a Latin American and Cuban gateway with new TPA flights offered; the completion of the Riverwalk; the construction of a youth-oriented high-tech industry; and improvements to inner-city neighborhoods: “As Jackson Heights goes, so goes Palma Ceia. As College Hill goes, so goes Culbreath Isles. As East Tampa and West Tampa go, so goes New Tampa.” Just walking around Downtown Tampa is exciting…all of the new restaurants, stores, public works projects…new hotels and residential buildings to come. Then perhaps more retail and office towers. Tampa has come a long way just under Bob Buckhorn, and it’s future continues to be bright.

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A (sort of boring) look at New Urbanism…

The dry and bland preface…

First, from the title, you’ve been warned. Today lets take a look at a concept I often talk about her, New Urbanism. New Urbanism is a concept that is very hard to define in just one sentence…”an urban design movement which promotes walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing and job types” is very vague and just does not exactly pin the idea.  It arose in the 1980s and goes far beyond just walkability and distancing from cars, but it is based around city plans from before the rise of automobiles. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two founders of the Congress for New Urbanism define 13 key points. A few include: The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center; Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center; There are a variety of dwelling types; The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles; and Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. Basically, very pedestrian oriented communities. These are the characteristics that get planners all giddy. The two points that I consider most significant are “Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room” and “Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.” New Urbanism comes in many shapes and sizes and forms. Most planners cite “Wisteria Lane”-type planned communities such as Celebration, Seaside and Stapleton, Colorado. The perfect, utopian, white picket fence neighborhoods and town squares. To me, it goes a lot further than that. The philosophy is, at its core, an antonym to suburbanization and urban sprawl that began after World War 2. By recent decades, suburban cities had become disturbingly similar, particularly those in Florida: cookie-cutter housing developments where all homes look the same, strip-malls and big box stores with vast parking lots and eight-lane highways with suicide invoking traffic. New Urbanism is trying to bring the ascetic of the city downtown out to the ‘burbs. Buildings built right out to the sidewalk with parking concealed, and all in various unique shapes and sizes. And ease of getting around by public transit or foot. The result is a “new city” look, and a very attractive one might I add.

New Urbanism in Tampa…

Tampa is finally breaking the Florida mold and becoming an example of these great practices. While it is being noticed in isolated areas all over the region, such as the new LA Fitness on Dale Mabry, the very best examples are found at Hyde Park and Soho. Hyde Park’s dramatic redevelopment of retail and dining options in the 1980’s was a prime example, and probably one of the first in the area. Then it hit a seemingly inevitable decline. As a child, I remember when it was in its original prime. When the old AMC 7-screen cinema, Polo Ralph Lauren store, Winnberrie’s, Salina’s, Talbot’s, Gap, The Sharper Image, Eckerd and The Cactus Club all thrived. And when Jacobson’s was there and took up almost a whole block. And when they could actually get away with charging for parking. Then it hit a massive decline. Finally, the place is getting back on its feet. Brooks Brothers and Williams-Sonoma have taken better locations, the spectacular CineBistro has finally filled the movie void and the area is graced with places such as a massive Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Anthropologie, Tommy Bahama, Timpano’s, Irish 31 and a new Wine Exchange. Plus there’s Indigo Coffee, a local favorite. It’s finally pleasant to sit on the fountain circle on a nice afternoon. Sure the area has a ways to go. Ann Taylor, Talbot’s, Cactus Club, Sharper Image and the old Brooks Brothers have still left empty parcels. And some are filled by places such as banks, offices and the massive Lifestyle Fitness Center. Plus that French bakery keeps coming and going. But its on solid ground at least.

The up-and-coming in Tampa…

The place that really shines is Soho. No not just for its bar scene. Don’t get me wrong, Dubliner, the Lodge, Cheap and Yard of Ale are all great. Even the off-Soho joints such as the Rack and the Patio. And yes even the University of Tampa’s satellite campus, MacDintons. And that diverse nightlife is a major contributor. Places like the Drynk, the Kennedy and Hyde Park Cafe all add to the “diversity”. Soho’s dining scene is also a great one with jewels such as SideBerns, Daily Eats, Royal Thai Palace, The Lime, 717 South and Cicio and Tony’s, not to mention the legendary Bern’s. But where Soho really shines is its examples of…yep, New Urbanism. The first one was about ten years ago, there’s not really a name for the place but it’s the entire development at Swann and Howard that includes 717 South, Starbucks, Panarra and a number of boutiques and office space. Next came Publix Greenwise market which took it a step further with its vertical development and rooftop parking. Now come two big ones. Bern’s Epicurean Hotel has been discussed twice before on here. It’ll be the first big hotel for the area and a prime example of the concept I’ve beaten to death in the last few paragraphs. The next is a totally new development, back at Swann and Soho. The historic brick structure was recently demolished (as per usual), that once housed tenants such as Whisky Soho and Tampa Digital Studios. Thankfully, coming up in its place will be another development to transform Soho’s streetscape. Post Properties latest development, Post Soho Square, will consist of 231 apartments and more than 10,000 square feet of retail space according to a Times article. The project had been on hold since 2005 and has also been considerably scaled back. Regardless, the next few years are looking good for this vibrant area.

I hope you’re not to bored.

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The Urbanophile

A glimpse at the modern and nifty in urban Florida and America

The Modern Meridiem

A glimpse at the modern and nifty in urban Florida and America

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