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Pasco needs unified vision, political will — and cash — to grow

Take a drive along U.S. 19 and what do you see? Aging retail centers fronting tracts of modest housing dating to the Nixon presidency. Insufficient bus service that shares the dangerous highway with tens of thousands of vehicles and the occasional bicyclist and pedestrian trudging along shoulders with no sidewalks.

What about an east-west ride along State Road 54 in west Pasco or State Road 56 in Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel? Forget the bus service. It's not even available yet. Twice a day you'll find a rush of commuters hurrying to and from Interstate 75 or the Suncoast Parkway as they travel between their homes here and their jobs there, in Hillsborough County or elsewhere.

Now, imagine taking that same ride two decades from now. Will you simply see more of the same, only worse, if the county population meets growth projections of close to a quarter-million new residents?

Not if Pasco County government successfully defines and aids the growth of two key markets it wants to designate as urban service areas. The intent is to promote redevelopment and in-fill along its west side and to push for what is called transit-oriented development — high density residential to make use of light rail and commuter trains — along its State Road 54/56 corridor stretching from Rowan Road and Seven Springs Boulevards on the west to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills in east Pasco.

If it works, and there are significant challenges to overcome, Pasco County, over the next two decades, could grow in a more reasonable, targeted direction instead of the hodgepodge pattern of turning former ranches into 1,599-home subdivisions. Richard E. Gehring, Pasco's growth management administrator, likened Pasco's growth and future housing entitlements to peanut butter — spread all over the place. The goal, he said, should be to no longer grow outward, but grow inward and upward.

Gehring and other county staffers spent Tuesday morning briefing county commissioners on the timelines and needed county action — not to mention circumstances beyond their control like the Hometown Democracy initiative in 2010 and ambiguous legislative definitions on urban service areas — to establish the desired market areas to grow smarter, to attract more industry and to take advantage of regional mass transit plans.

The market areas, first described by the Urban Land Institute consultants for the commission in 2008, divide the county into five regions, but the initial focus is on the west side (formerly called the coastal/inland corridor) and the southern tier of the county that had been dubbed the gateway opportunity area.

If implemented successfully, west Pasco in 2030 will have attractive transit shelters to carry bus passengers along a corridor that features strip centers and malls recycled into lifestyle centers that could combine retail, offices, residences, public spaces, and even museums or other desirable amenities. Aging subdivisions will need government and private investment to move from rentals to owner-occupied rehabilitated neighborhoods in the area that is already congested and home to 180,000 people.

Redevelopment is complicated considering the higher expense, the need for a greater level of public participation via economic incentives, and even such things as changed parking rules to encourage transit. Take a look at the still half-built Main Street Landing in downtown New Port Richey for an example of what can go wrong. But the county can point to East Brown Acres as an example of a successfully redeveloped residential area.

The southern tier of Pasco, including a strip abutting I-75 to near Darby, presents different opportunities because open spaces still remain amid its nearly 84,000 acres. If the development strategy comes to fruition here, the corridor will feature workforce housing, employment centers and recreation in a stretch that also could include 25 to 30 transit stations — both smaller neighborhood stops and large-scale regional park-and-ride hubs — town centers and so-called traditional neighborhood developments.

It would become "our West Shore or our urban center,'' Gehring told commissioners.

The vision is grand, but the implementation requires abundant work, public input, a revised economic development scheme, changes to the comprehensive land use plan, new funding sources, a rewritten land code, potential litigation, action by the Legislature, political will by the commission and an economic rebound to put more cash in the credit markets, allowing renewed commercial real estate investing.

It is a lengthy to-do list, but it is a worthwhile effort given the alternative: More sprawl, more time in traffic and a diminished quality of life. The 2030 description of southern Pasco as offered by Gehring certainly is preferable.

"It's a live, work and play environment,'' he said, "and everybody is able to move.''

Pasco needs unified vision, political will — and cash — to grow 10/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 5:40pm]
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