Hillsborough County officials are looking at several proposals to redevelop the impoverished and transient neighborhood known as Suitcase City, west of the University of South Florida's main campus in north Tampa. County planners are examining how to attract businesses and make the area more pedestrian-friendly. Commissioner Mark Sharpe wants to leverage USF to create a high-tech corridor, and Commissioner Victor Crist wants a more ambitious plan to remake the entire university area. The attention is long overdue. But the county needs to focus its efforts and offer something achievable.
The area certainly has enough vacant land to cobble together a research and medical arts hub. The university, the nearby hospitals and the specialized research institutes provide a solid foundation to develop the area into a leading academic and clinical care destination. While the county needs to invest in the basics — from new sidewalks and bike lanes to better gateways into the corridor — Sharpe and Crist are right to push a larger vision. Small-bore makeovers will not reverse a spiral of poverty, blight and crime.
But commissioners also need to be realistic about the area's fundamental problems and needs. The neighborhoods west and south of the university have been on the downward trend for decades. Nine out of 10 of the area's 38,000 residents rent their homes, nearly three times the county average. Despite the building boom of the last decade, the area has seen a net loss of single-family homes. Household earnings are about half the countywide average. Almost half the residents live below the poverty level, more than three times the countywide average. Students attending USF account in part for the young population and the high density of rental housing. But there is a town-and-gown phenomenon in play, too. Entire neighborhoods west and south of the university are home to struggling Tampa residents — not students passing through. Creating greater economic opportunities for them will be a challenge.
Sharpe and Crist should boil down their separate visions and reach some consensus on a plan of action. Crist should pare back his footprint for redevelopment; it includes neighborhoods in Temple Terrace and New Tampa that are hardly distressed. While the gateways matter, the focus for now should be on attacking the underlying problems that deter private investment. Crime prevention efforts, beefed-up enforcement of housing codes, targeted job incentives — these should be the first priorities. But it's good to see the university area draw the commission's interest. The tough part will be deciding where to start first.