Friday, April 27, 2018
Editorials

Fighting blight fight key to west Pasco recovery

Look back at the west Pasco of the 1980s. Trinity was still pencil drawings on a map. Shoppers hustled to Gulfview Square mall from as far away as Hernando County to conduct their commerce. Sparkling new strip centers emerged to house national retailers. Home construction boomed in the newest locations like River Ridge while established neighborhoods, including Embassy Hills and Jasmine Lakes Estates, offered affordable resales of homes built just 10 years earlier.

Today, west Pasco is a mixed-bag at best, dotted by blight, congestion and commercial ugliness. Some strip centers have vacancy rates of 40 percent and high-profile locations attract vandals with spray paint rather than investors with equity. Hernando developed its own retailing district so the influx of shoppers declined. Homes built to lure northern retirees are now workforce housing in declining neighborhoods confronting criminal activity and code enforcement issues. Foreclosure rates are high. Homeless sleep in the woods. Prostitutes walk the streets. The region is an auto-centric relic indicative of an absence of long-range planning and pedestrian-friendly thinking.

Despite its significant shortcomings, west Pasco provides a third of the real estate tax base to the county and is home to 7,000 lots with water access that remain valuable because of their finite supply. And, national chains continue to invest in the area, attracted by the buying power of 200,000 residents and 80,000 motorists driving U.S. 19 each day.

Pasco County is about to embark on a long-term makeover of its western edge, an area that will be dubbed, for marketing purposes, as the Harbors to emphasize its proximity to the marshes and open water of Gulf of Mexico, the potential of a commercial district along the Pithlachascotee River, and the recreational and eco-tourism opportunities in the region.

After three years of in-house planning, inspired by Urban Land Institute suggestions in 2008, commissioners this week got their first peek at a massive redevelopment proposal. It calls for separating west Pasco into a dozen identifiable districts ranging in size from less than 1,000 people in Aripeka to 44,000 residents in Embassy. Each area will undergo its own community planning to tackle the most pressing problems, but the far-reaching goal is to improve economic development, local infrastructure, transportation, urban design traits and open space.

An action plan includes 153 suggested strategies, 62 of which are deemed critical and in need of immediate attention. Those range from expanded employment counseling/job training, better serving the homeless, creating a residential rental inspection program and finding a way to redevelop the former HCA Community Hospital site in the city of New Port Richey.

It's an aggressive, even exhaustive, attempt to remake west Pasco from aging, suburb sprawl to new urbanism that puts jobs, homes, commerce and recreation in close proximity to one another. Financing will be an immediate concern, though the renewed Penny for Pasco sales tax, federal Brownfield and HUD grants, and state Department of Transportation aid are likely candidates.

The challenge to county commissioners, present and future, is to sustain a vision that won't be diverted by parochialism or the lack of political will when it comes to code enforcement, policing rental properties and requiring private investors to abide by controls on commercial signs, landscaping and other aesthetic requirements. Cooperation among the county, cities of Port Richey and new Port Richey, and the private sector investors is key.

So, look ahead at west Pasco in the 2030s. It could have elevated pedestrian/bicycle trails crossing U.S. 19; a bustling river walk of retailers and restaurants along the Cotee River, more pocket parks in established neighborhoods, spruced up homes protected by aggressive code enforcement, employment centers at the former hospital or on the undeveloped land owned by the Harvey family along Little Road, traffic roundabouts at unsafe intersections and a lifestyle center of private stores and public space at Gulfview Square.

It's a grand plan. The task ahead is to ensure it doesn't get stuck on a shelf and ignored by distracted commissioners.

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