The Tarpon Springs Housing Authority was rebuffed by that city's planning board when it brought in a plan for a high-density affordable housing complex that gave little thought to the needs of the families who would live there. Last week the authority came back with a much-improved plan and won approval from the City Commission, which raises the question: Why did it take people who are not experts in public housing to make the housing authority do the right thing?
The housing authority and its development partner, Pinnacle Housing Group of Miami, originally wanted to build 176 apartments on the 9.4-acre site occupied by the 60-unit Mango Circle public housing complex. To build that many units, they had to get approval from the Planning and Zoning Board to tap into a density bonus the city offers as an incentive to developers to build affordable housing.
The concept design they showed the planning board was nothing if not simple: a bunch of two- and three-story apartment buildings and parking lots, with little green space anywhere. On one side of the property there was a small pool and a tiny play lot for toddlers.
Planning and Zoning Board members pointed out, correctly, that there was nowhere for children to run around outdoors, nowhere for families to gather outside. The board voted against awarding the density bonus and suggested the housing authority and Pinnacle needed to change the plan.
That's what happened. The new plan calls for only 104 units, which still requires some of the density bonus but is a much more reasonable number of units for the property. Added to the plan now are a bigger tot lot, another playground, two recreation/picnic areas, a walking trail around the retention pond and generally more green space.
"We heard the feedback," a Pinnacle Housing representative said Tuesday night before the City Commission voted unanimously to approve the density bonus, which the planning board had approved Monday night. Now, the developers can seek federal tax credits to build the project. A more detailed site plan for the new complex will be created later.
The first plan was the second public example of the housing authority apparently dismissing the welfare of its public housing residents. In April, the St. Petersburg Times reported on hazardous conditions at a playground in the existing Mango Circle complex. The playground was full of broken glass and the play equipment had chipping lead paint. Though the housing authority initially insisted the playground was safe and regularly inspected, it tore down the play equipment after a certified inspector declared it was potentially hazardous to children.
Because of the housing authority's demonstrated lack of concern on those two issues, city officials should be prepared to intervene on two future matters: the final site plan for the new Mango Circle complex, and the plan to relocate residents so the old complex can be demolished.
City officials should make sure that the final site plan reflects all of the amenities promised last week. And they should examine the plan for relocating Mango Circle residents to ensure it is sensitive, thorough and accounts for residents' special needs. The residents of Mango Circle — present and future — are entitled to the city's attention and protection.