The warning to Hillsborough County commissioners last week wasn’t odd, overblown or even particularly new: Restrain the urge to grow willy-nilly. Build more communities where shops, offices and apartments are within walking distance of each other. Have mass transit play a larger role in moving people and goods. And make development pay for itself.
Commissioners were all ears and uncommonly supportive of the recommendations by a panel of urban planning experts who at the county’s request studied the population and growth trends that will shape the look and feel of Hillsborough over the coming quarter-century. Nearly 600,000 more people will call the county home by 2040, bringing its total population to nearly 2 million. If elected officials don’t get their acts together, this boom could be a bust, sending sprawl into the exurbs and forcing local taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new roads, schools and other infrastructure — instead of maximizing the use of these same public resources that already exist in the urban areas.
The advisers from the Urban Land Institute focused on a stretch along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Plant City as a testing ground for the county to enact smarter growth policies. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Steve Contorno reported, the corridor is poised for growth, given the booming suburbs east of Tampa and the influx of new residents in greater Orlando. The panel urged the county to act now to guide — rather than react to — the outcome. Specifically, it urged the county to hold the line on expanding its Urban Service Area, where most roads, utilities and schools are already located, at its existing boundary over the near term, as it works to develop several clustered communities along the interstate that would be live-work-play destinations for tens of thousands of people.
There is nothing new about urban settings where condos and apartments share space with shops and offices. Downtown Tampa, Davis Islands and Hyde Park are just a few places in the county where this environment works. Residents and workers like the convenience and value of leaving the car at home. Mixed-use neighborhoods hold their value and appeal, and they make more efficient use of existing taxpayer resources.
Hillsborough’s problem has been its failure to act. The same commissioners who applauded the presentation last week have stood in the way of smarter growth. Hillsborough has twice failed in recent years to pass a meaningful mass transit plan, and its efforts to link jobs, growth and transportation have been halting and unfocused at best. This latest exercise is a waste of time if commissioners are not seriously committed to looking at planning and regulations in a new way.
There is some hope for optimism. State and local planners should coalesce around a new plan for regional transit improvements beginning in late 2018. Jeff Vinik’s plan to remake downtown Tampa’s waterfront is taking shape, inspiring a new vision and market for urbanism across the county. Hillsborough officials are looking to partner with other regional players on everything from retaining the Tampa Bay Rays in the region to expanding the use of reclaimed water. There is greater appreciation at County Center of how the future of the unincorporated areas is tied to the health of Hillsborough’s three cities. And commission elections next year offer an opportunity for voters to decide which candidates might actually follow through.
The land institute’s greatest contribution might be raising the bar for what the public expects from its planners and commissioners. It’s time to make smarter decisions along I-4 and all across a growing county with a diverse way of life.