PLANT CITY — The long-touted Midtown project was supposed to revitalize the historic downtown — a built-from-scratch shopping, entertainment and residential district coexisting seamlessly with the old.
A village green south of downtown would anchor surrounding shops and restaurants and offer an oasis for picnics and family-friendly concerts.
Cars would park around back. Buildings would be brought right up to the sidewalk, as in most cities.
And residing above the shops, cafes and galleries: a mix of young couples and retired boomers.
That was the vision when city leaders looked to revitalize the downtown core seven years ago.
But so far Midtown hasn't lived up to the hype, beset by successive problems: the sluggish economy, drainage issues and polluted soil, to name a few.
City officials say those problems are very much alive. But they also add that the long-awaited project is gaining traction.
• This summer, workers will remove contaminated soil on three city-owned properties in Midtown.
• By fall, or early 2013, the city will reconfigure Wheeler Street to bring it south to Ball Street, in essence creating two city blocks for development.
• Early next year, lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation to smooth out drainage issues.
But from there, the future looks murky. The project might linger until the economy and housing market rebound more robustly.
One thing is certain: Midtown will transform Plant City's downtown core — if it can be pulled off.
"The downtown is really the heart of our city, of any city," city Commissioner Rick Lott said. "To have a healthy downtown you have to have people living downtown. You have to have a mixed-used environment."
Big vision, tight funds
Midtown, a term coined by then-Mayor Lott, is the city's attempt at creating that mixed-use environment: a pedestrian-friendly area for homes, businesses and entertainment on 85 acres south of the historic downtown.
Merrick and Alsobrook Streets border the project's southern end. Thomas and Walker Streets serve as the project's western boundary. Collins Street and the CSX railroad tracks border the eastern side.
The project doesn't skimp on vision, but some developers say it might be tough to finance.
Temple Terrace is a possible case in point.
Amid a phased-in, mixed-use urban project of its own, Temple Terrace started battling the project's developer after the company pushed to swap out a portion of the mixed-use project with apartment buildings.
The city and many residents balked, arguing in meetings last month that the project's aim was to create a pedestrian-friendly streetscape with shops, restaurants, condominiums and offices.
"We have enough apartments in Temple Terrace. We don't need more," city Commissioner David Pogorilich said. "We're saturated with apartments."
The sides are at an impasse. Pogorilich blames developer Vlass Temple Terrace LLC for being short-sighted and said the mixed-use concept could work given time. Vlass won't comment.
But a partner in the Temple Terrace project, Mark Snead, said mixed-use projects are a tough sell for bankers, especially now.
"It's easy for planners and cities to become enamored with this idea of mixed-use, but they are not the operators of this product and they are not the lenders for this product," he said.
Developers say the shaky economy has lenders feeling jittery. More than ever, they're scrutinizing every last detail for fear of getting stuck with a vacant, unfinished building.
Mixed-use projects invite twice the scrutiny because the projects rely on two distinct buying groups — commercial and residential. If one class is slow to hop aboard, that can drag down an entire project.
"Who wants to live above a restaurant? These are the kinds of things lenders are looking at," Snead said. "Some officials have an unrealistic vision of what the market will support."
David Hawthorne, who purchased and renovated 13 buildings in downtown Plant City 15 years ago, called the city's vision "bold."
But like Snead, he said lenders can turn coy when presented anything but a surefire investment. Even then it can be tough to get financing.
"Nobody's lending," Hawthorne said.
Developers say that for lenders to back Midtown the market needs a big rebound — not just locally, but in Northern states so folks there sell their homes to buy down here.
"If growth can come back to Florida and if the city can make it attractive enough for someone like me to get involved, I think it could work," he said. "But to get them looking, that depends on what happens with the economy."
So far, analysts are seeing improvement. Housing starts in the Tampa Bay area jumped 27 percent in the first quarter. Nationally, sales of new single-family houses improved 10 percent in April and 28 percent in May compared to the same months a year ago, but that was after sales fell in January and February.
The economy isn't the only problem vexing officials. One issue is proving more intractable than the rest and could have city leaders turning to Tallahassee next year.
It concerns drainage and a seemingly routine bit of engineering that has turned into a two-year legislative headache.
At issue is a state law that requires any new development projects to include retention ponds for storm-water runoff — even in urban settings.
Because of the law, Midtown can't move forward because the city envisions tying the project into its storm-water drainage system — not building retention ponds. There's no room for them downtown, officials say.
What's more, the city had planned to rip up concrete footings on 13 acres it purchased in order to prep the land for sale to developers. But removing the footings will revert the property to green space and trigger the pond requirement.
"We wanted credit if we developed a storm-water management plan so in the future when it's redeveloped, it will not contain retention ponds," Community Services Director James McDaniel said.
Legislators tried without success to change the law the past two sessions. Each time a bill looked to be advancing, it got bogged down in the Senate's budget committee.
Officials are hopeful for a better outcome next year because the committee chairman who blocked passage, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lakeland, is leaving the Senate.
"I think it will go through next time. It's a good idea," said outgoing Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City. "Everybody's always talking about suburban sprawl. Well, this addresses suburban sprawl by allowing cities to do in-fill development."
Officials say Midtown's problems are timing-related — and so far, time isn't on their side.
But that hasn't stopped them from pushing forward.
Over the past four years the city purchased seven properties and tore down several dilapidated structures.
Officials applied for and received $1.6 million in federal and county grants to clean up contaminated soil on three of those properties — the former Gro Mor, Hydraulic Hose/JWH-Telco and Stock Lumber sites. Work is set for later this summer.
Also this summer, officials will rewrite the city's building codes so they line up with Midtown.
"If a developer has a good idea, he shouldn't have to jump through a lot of hoops," City Manager Gregory Horwedel said.
And in a move to make Midtown more appealing to developers, the city will extend Wheeler Street, one of its gateways, two blocks south to Ball Street. The county has committed $1.4 million to the project. The city will chip in $1.1 million.
In a robust economy, a bustling urban core would entice home buyers who want shops, restaurants and entertainment within walking distance.
The city wants to jump start that formula by focusing on the 13 acres it owns, hoping that construction there will spur work on privately held lots. It wants to market the site and select a developer in the next year or two.
Whether that happens depends on the economy.
"It's fair to say that once we get this infrastructure work done we will have something to market to developers. It may be a year, it may be several years before we find one," Commissioner William D. Dodson said. "We'd like to pick one principal developer to get the ball rolling.
"Success breeds success. The main ingredient here is to put people where the commerce is," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.