TAMPA — To create a downtown with a soul, Tampa needs more urban housing, more pedestrians, better transit and less parking.
Those are among the conclusions of a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C.
This week, the panel fanned out across Tampa's urban core to talk to officials, developers, merchants, lawyers and residents.
On Friday, they shared their thoughts with about 150 locals, including one who asked how Tampa compares to other cities.
"The opportunities," longtime developer Byron Koste said, "are unbelievable."
Downtown Tampa has beauty and charm, he said, but that's not what visitors see coming in off the interstate.
"I had to say, 'What the?' and then got to the 'Oh my,' " said Koste, executive director emeritus of the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business.
So Koste and his colleagues said the city should make immediate cosmetic improvements: Put in better landscaping, especially at entry ways to downtown. Got an ugly, empty lot? Get creative. Bring in a farmers market.
• Finish the Riverwalk, and allow food carts and restaurants near the Hillsborough River.
• Steer new housing toward three areas: Tampa Heights, the area around the Marion Street Transit Station and a redevelopment of the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex.
• Re-engineer roads like Ashley Drive to be less daunting to pedestrians. Think fewer lanes, more trees and lower speed limits.
• Ban new private parking lots as well as parking lots on street corners, convert some existing lots to parks or housing and increase on-street parking.
• Improve transit. Look at expanding the TECO trolley up to Tampa Heights and west of the Hillsborough River. Consider changes, like a fare-free zone, to make bus transit more attractive.
If the city comes together with a clear, shared vision, the panelists said the consensus can make it easier to start a business or get a building permit.
And to pay for these efforts, they floated various ideas: use federal community development block grants, tweak city parking operations to generate new revenue, use city-owned land or take advantage of federal income tax credits that reward companies for investing in redevelopment.
Asked about the best spot for a new downtown stadium, panelists said that's something the community should decide.
Still, they offered a few guidelines: Make it accessible. Think about transit. Share parking with other uses, because nothing looks worse than a stadium surrounded by acres of parking.
Mostly, the crowd like what it heard.
"I think you've done a great job of assessing where we need to put our development efforts," said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the report gives the city a "road map" for its next step: using a $1.18 million federal grant to create a master plan for downtown and areas like Ybor City, the Channel District and Tampa Heights.
"Now," he said, "we need to take this and go execute it."