NEW PORT RICHEY — Think about west Pasco for a minute. Maybe you picture congestion on U.S. 19 or an ugly streetscape. Maybe you wish downtown New Port Richey were livelier. Perhaps an empty strip center comes to mind.
Now imagine west Pasco in 30 years. Can the main highway carry enough traffic while encouraging pedestrians? Could Main Street be linked via a boardwalk to a refashioned downtown in Port Richey? How about a more urban feel around Gulf View Square mall with better access to Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park?
"With urban areas, you can't throw them away," said Richard Gehring, Pasco's growth management chief. "You've got to figure out what to do with it."
Gehring and his staff will host a series of public meetings over the next month to draft a long-term plan for redeveloping Pasco's most heavily populated area. The meetings begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Gulf Trace Elementary and travel up the coast to three more locations.
To consider more manageable chunks, county planners split the area into a dozen districts based on historic distinctions, roads and major developments. They hope to find ways to improve each area.
With a population of 214,000, Gehring said, west Pasco could be considered "a major city" rivaling St. Petersburg or Fort Lauderdale. After decades of being a magnet for retirees, new Census data show the area is mostly middle aged. Roughly a third of the population is between 40 to 64. Only a quarter of residents are 65 or older.
"Who are we going to have a community for in the next 25 years?" Gehring said. "And what is this area to them?"
Some ideas include:
• Reshaping U.S. 19 into a "multi-way boulevard" that includes six lanes of traffic for longer-distance trips and one-way access roads on either side for local traffic. There would be a wide sidewalk that backs right up to buildings to entice pedestrians to visit storefronts. Senior county planner Alberto Vargas also said the county could beef up parallel roads — Little, Rowan, Grand — to disperse traffic from the main highway.
"We need to think big," he said. "It's really our gateway to Pasco County."
In the short term, the state Department of Transportation is adding continuous right-turn lanes and re-shaping medians. It's also adding more sidewalks.
• Linking downtown New Port Richey to Miller's Bayou. The connection would be a San Antonio-style river walk with shops and restaurants along the way. Vargas noted there's no "discernible downtown in Port Richey," and that the plan would provide another access point to the Gulf.
• Possible employment centers in north Pasco across from the planned SunWest development; in Holiday near the Pinellas County line; and at a 1,000-acre tract east of Little and Plathe roads. Good jobs in that area, Gehring said, "could change the income level of the entire community."
County planner Quanlin Hu said she hopes to encourage stronger involvement with neighborhood groups.
"We haven't gone to the public in the past," she said. "There was a disconnect between the community and the public and the government."
A final plan is expected by the end of the year. Then it will come down to the nitty gritty: finding tax breaks and other incentives that allow developers to think big, and attracting middle- and high-income shops while incomes are still down.
"The big question is, what are people willing to pay for?" Gehring said.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.