By Ben Montgomery • Times Staff Writer
There's movement here on the public project home front, finally, an excitement that comes from community planning that could change the way our cities look and feel. Tampa announced last week that it's hiring a massive company to help craft a 20-year blueprint to redesign downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Then St. Petersburg unveiled inspired designs for a new $50 million pier that has folks making comparisons to the London Needle and Sydney Opera House.
Maybe the recession has forced us to reassess what we want from where we live. For whatever reason, the timing seems right to rethink a few things.
A few weeks ago, in these pages, we posed a question in an effort to guide planning and urban redevelopment here. When you're away from Tampa Bay, what do you want to be homesick for?
More than 60 readers responded (not counting the comedians; we'd rather not discuss being homesick for easy access to pain pills). The serious responses can be split into two categories:
1. What we have that we don't want to lose.
2. What we would like to see come to be.
The former you might call our natural and intellectual infrastructure, the mainstays — whether public or private — that require communal maintenance and support. Patricia Yatsui would miss the bird population on Glen Lake in St. Petersburg. Suzette Casabianca would miss the view of nature from the swing in her Pasco County back yard. Several of you wrote to say you'd miss the brilliant sunset from the Courtney Campbell Parkway or the Sunshine Skyway.
Other examples include Fort De Soto Park, Bananas Music, the Tampa Theatre, public radio station WMNF, even the St. Petersburg Times (thank you Lou Murphy of Kenneth City!).
We squeezed the latter category into 14 sharp ideas for improvement, some of them simple, some more complex. From light rail to landscaping, water taxis to artist enclaves, turn the page for the things you long to long for.
1. Light rail
Voters in Hillsborough shot down a penny sales tax hike for transit (58 percent against) in 2010, and Gov. Rick Scott put the kibosh on the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line, but many of you are still pining for trains to criss-cross your future city.
"The investment would immediately begin paying for itself, especially if a triangle route connecting St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa is wisely included," wrote Michael T. Manning, 59, who owns a vending company based in St. Petersburg. "The region would immediately be more accessible, the triangle would flourish and fossil fuel would be conserved."
If you've ever beat your steering wheel on a Frenzy Friday trek, you've probably had the same thought. Light rail was easily the most popular response to our question.
"By making the region more commuter, visitor and student friendly (as well as relieving significant amounts of congestion), the feel of the whole area is improved," wrote Lauren Berns of St. Petersburg.
Jeb Bjorn wants to see light rail, expanded bus service and the TECO streetcar maximize its operation.
"Young people want transit and young people are what a city needs to keep it thriving," he wrote. "Once we have a great transit system, downtown Tampa will flourish even more, creating a central hub where people can actually live."
So what's the outlook? Not good.
Amy Ellis at the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority says light rail remains a part of the authority's long-term plans for the region, but the vote in Hillsborough was a setback.
"It's still on the radar for the future, but not something we expect to see anytime really soon."
There is an ounce of hope, though. TBARTA is still considering light rail from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, passing through the Gateway district.
Picture having a beer or three in downtown Tampa, jumping on a ferry and shooting over to St. Petersburg for a ball game at Tropicana Field. Or maybe you live in St. Petersburg and work in Tampa and you don't have the hassle of crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge because, hey, you can take a boat!
"Seems to me that most every waterfront except ours has water taxis or commuter boats," wrote Yvonne Eggers, 70, a Gulfport resident who is very tired of having to drive wherever she wants to go. "Don't know if they have ever been tried here, but it's about time."
Great idea, right? Lots of seaboard cities employ ferries and water taxis, from Boston to Baltimore, the Hudson River to San Francisco Bay. Where's ours?
There's been plenty of talk.
Capt. Larry Salkin has run the successful Tampa Water Taxi operation for four years now around downtown Tampa and up the Hillsborough River. He did the math on making runs across the bay.
You'd need a fast boat that would hold 150 to 200 people. You'd need a crew. You'd need lots of fuel. And the trip would take about 45 minutes, in good weather.
"It just didn't work on paper," he said by phone. "It's just not a viable thing."
Without heavy subsidies, Salkin said, you couldn't make it work. Would someone pay $40 for a boat trip that takes longer than driving? What about $20?
But business owners and entrepreneurs are still considering options, and officials are studying subsidized routes between MacDill Air Force Base and the area around Apollo Beach, where surveys show demand is high.
"You know what would be more viable?" Salkin asked. "Light rail."
3. Bike paths
Many of you wrote to say you wished there were more safe and reasonable ways to stay out of your car. To ride a train. To walk. To bike!
Tampa lawyer J. Steele Olmstead, 56, would ride his bike 7 miles to work every day if there was a safe bike path along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. He's talking about a clearly marked path on the side of the road that would allow bikes to ride two abreast with the flow of traffic.
There have been improvements for cyclists across the region, but there's room for more.
4. A full-time outdoor market
This was also a popular idea, some open public spaces where booths could be rented by artists, craftsmen and local farmers. There are lively seasonal Saturday morning markets across the bay area, but some of you want something more permanent. Something like the farmers market in Charleston, S.C., one reader suggested.
"This area can grow magnificent shade trees," wrote Ed Hillsman, 61, of Tampa. "But most of our sidewalks are naked, with fast-moving cars on one side and strip malls or excessive concrete on the other, with no shade."
Wouldn't it be nice if our bare boulevards looked like those canopied streets of Allendale or Temple Terrace or Old Seminole Heights?
Check to see if your municipality has a tree planting program. Tampa's program, established in 1997, provides residents and neighborhood associations with free trees for planting on city rights of way.
6. Solar power
"I long to miss a metro area where most of the homes, businesses, government buildings and streetlights run on power from the sun collected from solar panels on their rooftops or at the site," wrote Lin Young of St. Petersburg.
We've got a long way to go. Florida produces just 2 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The state lags behind 29 other states — including such notably balmy places as New Jersey — in developing a renewable energy policy.
7. Riverfront park
Pat Bayers, 57, suggests designing a waterfront park along the river in New Port Richey with easy access for canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and outrigger boats, complete with a place to dock or store them. "New Port Richey has beautiful riverfront areas with abandoned buildings that could become a mecca for paddlers and for folks wanting to picnic or walk," she wrote. Seems worth a look in other places as well. Several of the designs for the new St. Petersburg pier include features that would suit kayaking and water activities.
8. Smaller schools
"Instead of mammoth educational warehouses that we have today, bring back smaller schools where parents and teachers get to know each other," wrote Pat Allen, 58, of Trinity.
9. Peace and quiet
Heidi Sumner remembers walking with her mother through their Eagle Crest neighborhood in St. Petersburg 20 years ago. She remembers hearing cicadas and spotting wild brown bunnies and gazing at the stars to identify constellations. Now? In the same house, in the same neighborhood, "you can't open your windows because the noise." It's traffic on Ninth Avenue N and Fifth Avenue N and Tyrone Boulevard. Trucks at Home Depot, semis at Sweetbay. The odors from the restaurants. The commercial lights that obscure the night sky.
"Homesick for what?" she wrote. "Bring back peace and quiet to the community we love."
10. City Pass
Ellen and Bill Lorenzen would like to see Tampa Bay museums and attractions come up with a City Pass, a single-purchase card that buys you admission to all the area's fun and interesting places. Folks with Tampa Bay & Company and the Hillsborough Arts Council say some attractions cooperate (such as MOSI, Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium), but they didn't know of a pass that provides access to a great many of the area's attractions. Seems like there's room for more cooperation for the benefit of all.
11. Dog parks
Juanita Ferrer wants Tampa Bay to become known as the most pet-friendly region in the country. More dog parks. More open public spaces where dogs are allowed to roam. More pet-friendly bars and restaurants.
12. Artist enclaves
Elizabeth Zemelka suggests that more neighborhoods apply to become artist enclaves, like Historic Kenwood. That's where the neighborhood association is trying to get a St. Petersburg city zoning "overlay" designation that will let artists have home-based studios. The designation lets artists in specified areas teach, produce work and meet small numbers of clients in their own spaces.
In a similar vein, Richard Seidel suggests developing an art-centric district in Tampa along the north end of Franklin Street, near the Tampa Theatre. He sees loft apartments, artist studios, galleries and restaurants.
13. Native landscaping
We live in Florida, where trees grow on buildings, so why are there so many barren medians, shoulders and public spaces? "People are attracted to Florida because the climate and natural flora are different," wrote Steve Carlisle. "It's the closest thing to the Caribbean in the U.S., and the bay area does not take advantage of it like our neighbors to the Northeast (Disney, in particular) and South Florida."
14. More love
The most touching — and simplest? — suggestion came from Helga Kenny in Tampa, a German-born military wife who has lived many places before settling in Tampa. As she watched the region grow, she began to think of it as home.
Then her husband died, and even though she has friends and family here, she's finding it hard to be without him.
Her simple message: "Show more heart toward each other," she wrote. "We all count and we all have a story to tell. A visit to your local nursing home is a wake-up call to what is important.
"The Hawaiians have a phrase: Malama kekahi i kekahi," she wrote. "Meaning: Take care of each other."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.