Tampa moved forward last month to relocate an old city truck yard near the waterfront, in what officials lauded as the first step in a massive redevelopment of West Tampa. But in its haste, the city has adopted an approach that risks overburdening taxpayers and even undermining the neighborhood it's trying to help. The city needs to do a better job of thinking this project through.
Moving the truck yard that sits on a wide bluff overlooking the Hillsborough River makes a lot of sense. There's no reason to park trucks, heavy equipment, pipes, industrial machinery and storage material on a parcel that is part of nearly 120 acres of publicly owned land that the city hopes to redevelop into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. The idea is to level the existing public housing and a crumbling commercial core, and replace it with apartments, shops, parks and restaurants.
The concept is promising, but the execution has not. The proposal Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn brought to the Tampa City Council in June was rushed, needlessly expensive and insensitive to one of the poorest areas of town. In one fell swoop, the council agreed to spend $1.8 million for land and engineering services associated with moving the yard. Another $819,000 had already been appropriated for the project. The cost to build new facilities for the trucks could reach $17 million or more. And that's before the price tag of any environmental cleanup at a maintenance yard that's been in use since Jimmy Carter's presidency.
The $20 million cost is double the estimate from only two years ago, and even the low end would amount to more than the city spent on the new Museum of Art downtown. But council barely bothered to scratch the surface. The mayor's staff had no idea what the truck yard was worth and no idea what the cleanup costs might be. They didn't look at consolidating the yard with a city maintenance operation, and they didn't ask Hillsborough County whether that agency had any property to share (it does). The city never went to the east Tampa neighborhood where these 200 trucks will go in and out each day to get feedback from the residents. The council passed the plan unanimously.
By paying a premium to move the truck yard now, without a buyer for the old property, the city is out millions of dollars up front. It loses leverage with any buyer by vacating early, along with the potential that a buyer would bring creative financing or their own money to the table to clean up property sloping to the river that has been a spill area for fuels and other contaminants for 36 years. Officials claim that moving would jump-start the redevelopment effort by giving federal and private partners an idea of what a blank canvas for the area could do. But developers have toyed with this concept for years; they don't need the city to move the truck yard to envision the area's potential. Committing to move the trucks would send the same message, and spare the city the cost and risks of fronting the relocation costs.
Also of concern is that the city's first step in turning around the economics of a distressed area is to take 272 city employees with regular paychecks and move them across town. Either the city hasn't thought this through, or it's more concerned with speed than final results. Being bold doesn't necessarily require being reckless. The city should find that distinction before this effort gets too far along.