Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is using the down time in the slow economic recovery to make some common-sense changes to the city's development rules. The proposals would make it easier for developers to navigate the regulatory process and give City Hall a fresh outlook on urban renewal and planning. But City Council members should ensure any changes protect neighborhoods and balance property rights with the larger public interest.
Buckhorn appointed a panel to review the city's development regulations soon after winning the mayoral race last year. He had campaigned on a pledge to make City Hall more business-friendly, and while the proposals came from a committee heavily represented by the development industry, the recommendations mirror the changes Buckhorn floated as a candidate.
Most of the ideas make sense. The various rules concerning growth that are sprinkled throughout the city code would be consolidated into a single development regulation. Developers would have an easier time seeing how their plans must incorporate everything from fire protection and storm drainage to sidewalks and solid waste. The move would give developers a greater degree of certainly early on about the hurdles and costs they face in getting their projects approved. The city would also appoint an ombudsman to act as a point of contact for developers and to mediate disputes across city departments.
The changes would also bring the city's land development code into the modern era. The current code, in many respects, is suited for suburban development. But urban settings require flexibility on parking and other amenities. The changes would bring about more sustainable development patterns and help rejuvenate older neighborhoods. The city would be more creative about finding uses for vacant storefronts downtown. Taking a more comprehensive approach to land development would also enable the city to make smarter use of its reconstruction dollars.
Buckhorn can make some changes administratively; he already has reorganized his top deputies to flatten the decisionmaking process. Some reforms, though, require the council's approval. Several proposals — weakening tree protections, fast-tracking some decisions and farming out plan reviews to the private sector — deserve rigorous scrutiny. But the plan is a good starting point. The trick will be in not getting carried away.