Monday, June 25, 2018
Opinion

Parking old development in a new, urbanized Pasco

Take a gander at the southwest corner of the Suncoast Parkway and State Road 54 in Odessa. There, 54 acres at Suncoast Crossings are home to a Super Target, Chili's, Starbucks, other eateries and retailers, plenty of parking and enough open space for yet another big box store.

Built seven years ago at the height of the residential real estate boom, it is the kind of commercial development longtime central Pasco residents had coveted after years of driving south on Gunn and Dale Mabry highways just to eat at a national chain restaurant or find a retail alternative to Walmart.

The commerce padded the tax rolls — the Target store alone has paid property tax bills totaling $820,000 since 2007 — produced sales tax revenue for the state and Pasco, and will have generated 440 jobs and an annual payroll of $9.6 million by the time that second, still undetermined big box store gets built.

A success story, right?

Well, not to the people in Pasco County mapping out the future development standards for the county's southern and western tiers. They see that typical suburban commercial development at a high traffic intersection as a wasted opportunity.

"It doesn't lend itself easily to evolving over time,'' Richard Gehring, Pasco's planning and development administrator, told county commissioners last week.

In other words, two decades from now it could be just another aging strip center in need of redevelopment to fill empty storefronts.

Across State Road 54 from Suncoast Crossings is empty land known as Pinnacle on the South Branch Ranch. County planners envision a pedestrian-friendly development there that can mature over four decades from a big box anchor and restaurants and stores away from the highway to include parking decks, a hotel, apartments and town homes, an office park and transit station amid a grid of walkable routes in an urbanized Main Street setting. They see the 64 acres capable of producing three times the developable space of Suncoast Crossings and generating 5,000 jobs paying $232 million in annual wages.

It's an ambitious vision still in its infancy, but it is the kind of philosophy that will be key to successfully pushing Pasco County away from the typical development pattern of auto-centric 1,500-home suburban enclaves in favor of enhanced urbanism with more people living and working in an attractive, but compact areas near the major intersections of the State Road 54/56 corridor.

This isn't being done on a whim to pretty the place up. It is strategy to rebuild the local economy that saw the county property tax rolls lose $9 billion in value over a half decade. Too, the mixed-use developments are intended to bring more balance to the tax roll that is 78 percent residential property.

The county is just now starting to draft its urban design rules to encourage this new development standard. Certainly, it will require buy-in from the private sector interests who could see up-front costs double, but with a potential four-fold increase in the value of their investment. Already, current property owners and land-use attorneys are questioning how long-planned, but unbuilt projects will be altered by the new rules. The design standards also must be blessed by commissioners who can have a hard time staying committed to a 40-year plan when their real focus is the next election.

That short attention span has produced some dubious land-use decisions running contrary to the commission's own planning rules and stated goals. Commissioner Pat Mulieri has routinely voted against neighborhood connectivity. Commissioner Jack Mariano wanted to offer economic incentives to attract low-wage retail jobs. In 2012, Mulieri and Commissioner Ted Schrader voted to expand the county's urban service boundary, effectively promoting future sprawl in Shady Hills. And a current majority of Mulieri, Mariano and Commissioner Henry Wilson wrongly defied their own rules by denying the owner of properly zoned land permission to build a Seven Springs apartment complex.

In that regard, it will do little good to adopt urban design standards if commissioners are prone to project-by-project waffling guided by political considerations. As the commission looks to the future, wasted opportunities should be a thing of the past.

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