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U.S. 19 corridor plans face difficult reality

As you head out, or perhaps return home already, from the Black Friday excursion, take a gander at U.S. 19.

Here's a sample of what you will see:

"We Buy Gold'' sign wavers and other sandwich-board throwbacks trying to lure customers. Bicyclists riding the wrong way against traffic. Adults pushing baby strollers on the shoulder because sidewalks are lacking. Jaywalkers. Barren medians. Empty storefronts. Reckless driving.

Too many cars. Too few pedestrians. Plenty of ugliness.

The U.S. 19 corridor, the 20-mile spine of what Pasco County government labels the west market area, needs an overhaul. It needs aesthetics. It needs pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly paths. It needs better mass transit. It needs commerce. It needs a lot.

To make the tasks more manageable, at least on paper, Pasco County planners are pitching the notion of four separate redevelopment areas along west Pasco. The northern section is highlighted by the future development of the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne resort. The central commercial district from Ridge Road to State Road 52 is dominated by Gulf View Square mall and the struggling retail areas at Scenic Drive and between Regency Park and Jasmine Boulevard. The stretch from State Road 54 to Ridge Road includes Pasco's two west side cities and the Pithlachascotee River making it prime for a coordinated waterfront district. The Pinellas County line to State Road 54 could be enhanced by ecotourism tied to the Anclote River and Gulf of Mexico.

Those are some of the ideas. The realities are more grounded as the county staff correctly identified what commissioners have to work with: Isolated and disconnected areas (think of the neighborhoods with only a single entrance and exit on U.S. 19); strip development; an under-utilized waterfront; and aging, deteriorating neighborhoods.

On this Black Friday, we'll set aside the focus on retailing and commerce and consider the suggestion of amplifying access to the Pithlachascotee River. Pasco County's Growth Management staff envisions a riverwalk comparable to the city of San Antonio's — a bustling pedestrian area of commercial establishments catering to tourists and locals.

The significant problem, of course, is that the most desirable portions of the river are located within the corporate limits of the cities of New Port Richey and Port Richey. And, both already tapped the community redevelopment strategy of declaring their entire cities blighted to maximize tax benefits for improvements. In New Port Richey, those community redevelopment dollars — tax revenue generated by higher property values — are committed to paying off bonds used for a new recreation-aquatic center, acquiring the former Hacienda Hotel and other capital investments. Port Richey has little to show for its redevelopment efforts, but its focus has been on a long-discussed dredge of residential canals.

Such a tri-government effort among the county and two cities also must overcome political considerations. How enthusiastic will the county be in offering help when it receives no financial benefit from growing the cities' property values? Remember, under community redevelopment, increased county tax revenue attributed to higher property values stays within the cities. It's a significant sticking point in an era of shrinking government dollars.

There are geographic challenges as well. New Port Richey's waterfront is largely residential, but it has invested in its own pedestrian riverwalk from downtown to Massachusetts Avenue. That it ends there is due to private ownership of the property northwest of the riverwalk's terminus.

Port Richey's zoning along the north side of the river permits commercial activity. The city wants an overlay district to encourage a Key West style of development along the water yet the city has demonstrated neither the financial wherewithal nor the political acumen to do much more than talk. Mayor Richard Rober admitted the tiny city of 3,200 people would need help with a riverwalk proposal simply because it is beyond Port Richey's means.

His compatriot on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, New Port Richey Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe, noted that waterfront doesn't even have a completed bicycle path. He advocated a past idea of a pathway beneath the U.S. 19 bridge as a key piece of a trail linking the shores along the mouth of the river to New Port Richey and the bicycle enthusiasts using Starkey Trail and points to the east.

There is another attraction beyond the river. The congested urban core of the highway masks the gem sitting just to the west — Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, the best view of which, county staff noted dryly, is from the rear loading docks at Gulf View Square mall.

The river and the 4,500-acre preserve can provide the aesthetic respite from the billboards, asphalt and automobiles. But, not every redevelopment effort will enhance the highway's scenic qualities. Just two weeks ago, an aging, family-owned motel in Hudson was bulldozed to make way for a used car lot.

Adding more cars to U.S. 19 shouldn't be anybody's idea of beautification.

U.S. 19 corridor plans face difficult reality 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 7:06pm]
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