A center that didn't hold
Trinity Town Center was supposed to be a gathering place for the Pasco bedroom suburb, Trinity. Nearly four years ago, the developer broke ground for the shopping center that would feature restaurants, shops and offices. Now it's all but empty. Blame the economy.
Or the developer, Bill Planes, who did not pay the contractors working on the project. A symptom of the bust, Trinity Town Center is also a symbol of something larger: how we define community.
"A true town center is more than a shopping center; it has public places," said Charles Gauthier, director of the division of community planning at Florida's Department of Community Affairs. "Those aren't true towns."
Gauthier noted that Florida law does not define town centers. But others echo Gauthier's sentiment.
"That's a commercial project that's on a corner that the guy called a town center," said Richard Gehring, Pasco County's growth management administrator. "A true town center would be far more than retail uses," Gauthier added. "It would include public places, such as a city hall, a city park, a town square -- features like a farmers market that bring people together. You see these characteristics in these organic town centers. Newer town centers tend to be retail establishments."
There are no parks at Trinity Town Center. No city hall. No places for protesters, or for citizens to meet to discuss the community's civic affairs. Trinity Town Center is an outdoor mall. Its purpose is commerce. Not community.
The county defines town centers in its comprehensive plan. Officials have planned for four or five of them in sprawling communities like Connerton. Planners want to create self-contained communities where the residents don't have to commute to another county to work. They want these places to have parks, sidewalks, public squares.
But there's no money, so no town centers have been built. And under the comprehensive plan, those future town centers won't offer true public spaces because even the public square will be owned and maintained by a private party. That saves taxpayers some costs. But the tradeoff is problematic for some.
Ask the scholar who has written about the topic. "Boy, they look really purified," said Ray Oldenburg, retired sociology professor and author of the Great Good Place. "I can't believe that everyone is really welcome there. Most of these things, they look like something that never was. They don't smack of a vital city. A true public place, the exercise of all your rights as a citizen are available to you."
And when Florida eventually emerges from this bust, its citizens will have to decide what kind of community they wish to build.
Sands against the sea
It took a lot of sand to fight back the stubborn sea. And thousands of feet of pipeline. And a barge that a private contractor used to pump more than 250,000 cubic yards of grit from offshore to fill in Sunset and Sunshine beaches at Treasure Island. This is beach renourishment, although some call it dredge and fill.
"The economic benefits are absolutely astounding," said Andy Squires, Pinellas County's coastal manager. Squires cited a recent study that the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau commissioned. The research claims that beachgoing visitors spend more than $3.5 million daily, in Pinellas county alone. Also important, Squires said, this added shoreline will give sea turtles more nesting grounds, and development a buffer against the shifting landscape.
"In Florida, beach renourishment has repeatedly been used to hold the line so we can put more stuff there," said Dr. Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. "There's nothing good to be said of Florida's coastal management. It's been a disaster for hurricane preparedness, and number two it's been a disaster for sea level rise."
But we've always built on the coast since early settlers landed on Florida's shores. When a storm tore through, we just rebuilt, in the same place, pretty much the same way.
"I would agree that it would be nice that we didn't build up on the beach," Squires said. "By the time I got into this, it had already been done. I understand the pros and cons. Certainly in the long run, we're going to have to deal with sea level rise."
For now, beach renourishment is the popular fix. In Pinellas it dates to the late 1960s, when Treasure Island was the first barrier island to do it. And that beach needs it every three or four years, according to officials.
"I think it's too late for Florida," concluded Pilkey, who believes Florida has taken a shortsighted approach to the problem. "With a 3-foot sea level rise, barrier island development is toast.
"The future of the beaches is so important to Florida. They should have been leading the way, but they're leading the way in the wrong direction."
Coming soon: another Walmart
There's a new Walmart Supercenter along this south Tampa stretch of Gandy Boulevard.
Unlike the failed New Port condo development down the road that's now an empty plot of land overlooking Tampa Bay, Sam Walton's discount retail empire seems unfazed by the Great Recession -- and the typical citizen opposition -- as it continues to increase numbers in the Sunshine state and beyond.
There are more than 170 Supercenters in Florida alone, which doesn't include smaller neighborhood markets, Sam's Clubs and distribution centers. A Supercenter that borders the Historic Kenwood neighborhood is under construction. It's not too far from another, relatively new one in southern St. Petersburg. And the world's largest retailer is trying to build a Supercenter in Tarpon Springs where a Kmart used to be after years of working to put one in along the banks of the Anclote River. Strong citizen opposition had helped stymie that effort. The Gandy Boulevard location will employ about 300 Walmart workers where a Sticks 'N' Stuff and the Pleasure Zone Adult Supercenter were once located.
It didn't create the stir that the Anclote River site did, but some folks had concerns.
"Depending on the time of day, Gandy Boulevard is going to be backed up," said Al Steenson, president of the Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association, who wants the city of Tampa to mitigate effects of the extra traffic using the nearly half-million-dollar transportation impact fee that officials required Walmart to pay.
"They paid their money in good faith. And now the city has an obligation to come back and find out if mitigation is required." Until then, shoppers will probably flock to the 24-hour store.
Steenson most likely won't be one of them.
Nothing personal. His wife likes Publix better.
"There are a lot of people that love Walmart. There are a lot of people that hate Walmart. I could care less whose name is on that building.
"If Target had gone in there, or a Sears Roebuck, I would have the same concerns I had."
But traffic woes aside, Steenson adds that there is a plus to having a new Walmart in that spot.
"One thing that is good about it is they got rid of the porn store at the corner."
Information from Times files was used in this report.
A Scrub and a cleanup
Freed slaves settled this 28-acre dirt plot in Tampa during the late 1800s. Back then, according to local historian Fred Hearns, people called it the Scrub because there wasn't much there but brushlike vegetation.
As Hearns tells it, the years turned into a new century, and black entrepreneurs began opening businesses along Central Avenue, just a short walk away, helping the Scrub become a vibrant African-American community burgeoning with talent. Gone With the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen attended St. Peter Claver Catholic School, which borders the Scrub. Ella Fitzgerald also performed on Central Avenue. So did Ray Charles and James Brown.
The Scrub was also a place for the well off and the not so well off, the blue collar and the white collar, the educated and the uneducated -- all living together, working together, playing together.
But this city within a city lacked basic services. Homes were shacks without plumbing. Folks burned their trash because there was no trash pickup. So progress began a steady march forward in the 1950s when the shacks were torn down and replaced with a public housing project, Central Park Village. Then the interstate passed through.
And finally, in 1967, a Tampa police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Martin Chambers, a robbery suspect accused of fleeing to the housing project. Several days of rioting followed. The Scrub lost its shine.
Several years ago, the Tampa Housing Authority razed Central Park Village and relocated its roughly 1,300 residents. Partnered with Bank of America, they're now building Encore Tampa, a mixed-use development where the poor and the middle class will live together. Of the 1,500 proposed units, about 47 percent will be considered affordable housing, and relocated Central Park Village residents have first choice to live there.
Some folks don't like it, though.
"I raised my children up in Central Park," said the Rev. Frank Williams Sr., who also grew up in the Scrub and now runs Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, a bright blue building sitting on Encore Tampa's fringe. "Central Park was nice to all of us. They say they're going to have low-income residents, but I have to see it first."
Others say it will be an improvement, for the residents and for Tampa.
"It was a poorly built housing development, and in my opinion we could do better," said Jerome Ryans, president and CEO of the Tampa Housing Authority.
Instead of run-down apartments, Ryans has pointed out that when finished, there will be a city park, a solar park, a middle school nearby, retail space, office space, residential space, a grocery store, and an African-American history museum housed in a historic church that dates back to the 1890s.
"You're not putting all poor people in one location, but for various reasons that has happened over the years," added Ryans, who has lived in public housing. "That's not the way to do business, and that's not the way to house people. It's not fair to those people that lived in those conditions, and we could do better."
Hearns, who is a retired director of Tampa's Department of Community Affairs, had this to say: "You can't think of a more inhumane life than that of a slave, so the Scrub was a step up, and the Central Park Village was a step up from the Scrub, and Encore is a major step up."
From the ground up
The May evening light fades on Clearwater Beach's Port Vue Motel, which looks like a bombed-out structure in some faraway war zone. A demolition crew has taken down the four-story building to make room for a larger, limited-service hotel -- a proposed 10-story Holiday Inn Express -- that's on schedule to be finished in over a year.
It's a tough economy for building, though, even in a place like Clearwater Beach where local officials have promoted hotel development. And some worry it could get tougher after Election Day if Florida Hometown Democracy's Amendment 4 passes, which promulgates a more democratic growth management system by putting changes to a community's comprehensive land use plan up for a vote. Opponents say this would stifle growth. Just look south to St. Pete Beach, the poster child for what's gone wrong.
"Given what we know from St. Pete Beach, that's our best indication of what could happen," said Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's economic and housing director.
St. Pete Beach voters who were upset with a city proposal to grant taller hotels approved their own version of Hometown Democracy in a 2006 referendum. Since then, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money fighting lawsuits related to it, and like it or not, development is stalled.
North of there, Clearwater has tried to encourage development in order to make up for some, if not all, of the nearly 1,200 hotel rooms that were demolished during the failed condo boom. The city council approved a hotel density reserve that allows developers to build more hotel rooms per project in certain circumstances. The proposed Holiday Inn Express will have 108 rooms, 72 of which benefit from the reserve.
Yet Hometown Democracy supporters say that development decisions need to be in the voters' hands, not the politicians who are beholden to an industry that was yearly building over rural land roughly the size of Pinellas County when times were good.
The New York Times and Naples Daily News recently reported that Port St. Lucie's mayor resigned amid allegations of filching campaign money, some of which came from developers. The New York Times also reported in the same article that many of Florida's counties have allowed for plenty of room to grow for years to come.
Still, the politicians have the final say."If the politicians are not making the right decisions, you need to change the politicians," said Jeff Keierleber, president of Decade Property, the developer of the proposed Holiday Inn Express. That's sometimes easier said than done.
Keierleber, who hasn't followed Hometown Democracy, does believe that we all want the same thing in the end, despite the different ways for achieving it.
"Any reasonable person that goes to Clearwater Beach should quickly determine the need for reasonable, quality development on the beach," he said. "You've got projects knocked down with nothing started, you've got empty lots fenced off — that is not good for anybody. It's not good for the businesses that are already there, and it's certainly not good for the tourists that visit Clearwater Beach.
"I think that what we're all looking for is a vibrant community, no matter where we are." Information from the Times archives was used in this report.
It's public, but is it art?
Graffiti and mural artists with esoteric names like Center, How, Nosm, Wie and Chico tagged four walls in sunny St. Petersburg. Three of the walls are visible from Central Avenue in the Grand Central District. A fourth, the one that looks like a hip-hop version of Edvard Munch's Scream, faces an alleyway. Chico painted that one. Center wears a tie to work during the day, kind of like how Clark Kent dons glasses and a suit to disguise his alter ego, Superman. How and Nosm are famous graffiti and mural artists living in New York City who came down to participate. And Wie lives in Orlando.
A few months ago, they converged with locals to publicly celebrate their visions during a collective mural painting party. "These are every man, and they were simply looking for an opportunity to perfect their craft and get recognition as artists," said Pat Jennings, co-owner of the Central Art Supply Company and The Artista Project, a co-sponsor.
According to Margaret Miller, director of the University of South Florida's Institute for Research in Art, some cities recognize graffiti art as a legitimate form of visual expression. Miller cited the industrial Wynwood district in Miami as being known for graffiti and mural art. But she acknowledged, it's not common to see this in Tampa Bay, although St. Petersburg's land development code typically grants some degree of artistic freedom — with some caveats: The work can't be an advertisement or profane. And the artists need legal permission to paint a wall, which they had.
Jennings hopes for more public space to be dedicated to this art form. "I just feel there's an obligation on the part of the community to provide a canvas for the artist," Jennings concluded. And while their area is recognized as a historic Florida Main Street, the Grand Central District Association certainly wants to welcome the creative types. "We're trying to be a community that's inviting to artists," said Jim Longstreth, the association’s president. Yet with every pro, there is a con. "The significance of this form of expression is that it is free and accessible to everyone," Miller added. "On the negative side — it imposes itself in public spaces."
Restoring a wetlands
Little minnows swim in this water habitat at the base of the gypsum stacks that store acidic wastewater from fertilizer production. It's also where white ibises come to eat -- and Louisiana herons and white herons. Even ospreys can be spotted flying about. "All rely on the estuary at some time in their life cycle," said Richard Boler, general manager for Environmental Monitoring for the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.
Sandwiched between I-75 and Tampa Bay, this wetlands area in eastern Hillsborough County has seen its share of life-altering changes since the early 20th century, all for progress. A railroad track cuts through the landscape. Major roads like U.S. 41 divide it, allowing cars and trucks to speed by with goods and services and commuters heading to and from work. Creeks and rivers have been straightened and rerouted to facilitate development. And noticeably, phosphate miners and fertilizer producers set up camp directly south of here along the Alafia River during the 1920s to meet increasing demand for growing food, which at times has taken its toll on this ecosystem.
Thousands of gallons of phosphoric acid polluted the river and killed fish during a 1988 spill. In 2004, when Cargill Crop Nutrition owned the phosphate factory, Hurricane Frances' fierce winds caused waves in the gypsum stack's pond. The southern wall collapsed and millions of gallons of acidic wastewater briefly contaminated the old Archie Creek, killing mangroves, salt marshes and fish. "A lot of the man-made impacts were out of ignorance and expediency," Boler said. "It's not wickedness." Mosaic Co. took over the gypsum stack and the phosphate factory. The company has spent millions of dollars in restoration and hundreds of thousands in fines for the 2004 incident and additional mitigation efforts.
Much of the wetlands had come back, according to officials. "That's the silver lining, the area is being restored to a better ecological functioning system," added Boler. Of course, Mother Nature sometimes does her own thing. Record low temperatures killed the white mangroves again this past winter. But they're resilient. Baby mangroves are sprouting up at the base of the dead ones in this estuary on which life depends.
Information from Times archives was used in the report.
Whither the hubcaps?
The weather-worn house sits at the corner of U.S. 19 and Atlanta Avenue in Hernando County, directly east of black bear habitat, just north of sprawl.
It's a place in limbo: near the wild, zoned commercial, currently decrepit. It was once owned by an eccentric pack rat named Lovell Richards, who collected sinks, toilet bowls, rusty bikes, records, coffee cups and hubcaps -- thousands of hubcaps -- earning it the title Hubcap City.
Sometimes locals called it a landmark. Almost always, they called it an eyesore. "And that's putting it mildly," said Frank McDowell, a retired county code enforcement director who helped clean it up.
After collecting people's throwaways since the 1960s, and having little luck selling them, Richards' Hubcap City became a dense junkyard. "He couldn't pass up a bargain," McDowell added. "He'd just bring it back and toss it back on the property."
People complained. The county's code enforcement tried to get him to clean up. But Richards refused, went to court and lost. "When we'd take the stuff up to the landfill, he was up there with a trailer, and he'd load it back up and haul it back," McDowell continued.
Eventually, Hubcap City was cleared for good. Then five years ago, when land speculation was reaching a climax in Florida, Richards sold his 12 acres to a hotel magnate living in Southampton, N.Y., for more than half a million dollars. Public records zone it as commercial. No immediate plans have been announced for developing the site. The current owner did not return a phone call seeking comment. And Richards, 85, lives in a nursing home, apart from his treasures that most people would call junk.
Times writers Michael Kruse, Kameel Stanley and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.
Still a work in progress
Last spring, this portion of the Pinellas County landscape appeared carved open and flattened by bulldozers, which were widening the connecting road from Interstate 275 to Roosevelt Boulevard. Now paved, it's one of many typical road construction projects in Tampa Bay that takes years to plan and build. The Florida Department of Transportation is working on at least 32 right now. But despite all this, various studies and statistics forebode transit doom and gloom for our sprawling region.
In 2006, the Center for Housing Policy reported that the average Tampa Bay family spent 33 percent of their annual income on driving. And on average, rush-hour commuters were delayed 47 hours in 2007, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2009 Urban Mobility Report.
"That's what the numbers say," said Bob Clifford, executive director for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. "But the reality is that you would get so congested that you would start to run into the scenario that people wouldn't move here and businesses wouldn't come here because you've got such a congested state." As a result, influential politicos and business leaders are hoping to add light rail to the regional transit equation, as well as upgrading bus service and improving existing roads. Rail advocates in Hillsborough County are lobbying to pass a penny tax increase this November to help pay for these services in their county. Leaders in Pinellas are also promoting rail.
Yet opponents say the region cannot financially support light rail and a recession is a bad time to raise taxes and spend money for such a project. "Transportation is expensive, but it is the absolute foundation of the economy," Clifford added. "It's all about how you work, how you play, how your goods come in and out. You have to have a good transportation infrastructure to have a vibrant and robust economy."
Light rail is a big part of having that, though people have been debating its regional merits for years. "The discussion now is how do we pay for it," Clifford continued. "It's no longer should we do it."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.
Unpretty as a picture
Jim Shanklin and his wife, Debbie, once had a viburnum hedge that separated their St. Petersburg front yard from a busy 22nd Avenue North where drivers hurry past at all hours of the day and night.
The 10-foot hedge provided a buffer from the car fumes and the car noise and the fender benders that happen on this four-lane road -- and modest privacy from prying eyes.
But more than six years ago, the city told them to cut their viburnum down from 10 to 6 feet. The city's land development code allows for a maximum height of 6 feet. Like others who have felt wronged by codes that require unnecessary conformity without compromise, the Shanklins stood their ground: The hedge didn't block traffic or the sidewalk, and it was not a health hazard.
"I told them to bring it on," Jim said. The city did. And eventually a judge ordered the Shanklins to comply. So to protest, Jim replaced the hedge with an enlarged photograph of the viburnum attached to a 6-foot tall fence that stretches 42 feet across their property line.
Of course, the city was not amused. Jim called it art, which is protected under the code. However, if officials wanted to press the issue, he threatened swapping it with a picture of former Mayor Rick Baker "dressed as a clown riding a gold surf board, riding a wave of tax dollars." Their choice. Thus ended the hedge saga.
Still, he prefers the hedge over the vinyl image of which he says, "It's about as un-green as you can get." Which matters. The Shanklins have two rain barrels and a homemade solar pool heater in their backyard.
A pipeline to what future?
Along State Road 52, east of the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco County, a 36-inch pipeline is under construction, part of 483 miles of loops that the Florida Gas Transmission Co. is adding to 5,000 miles that snake from Texas' Gulf Coast to South Florida. The new lines will move enough natural gas from suppliers to utilities to generate electricity for about 1 million homes.
"The need for more energy continues to grow, the air conditioning, the computers that are always on and always using electricity," said John Barnett, an FGT spokesman. "These projects don't get built overnight." But the pipeline is also a sign of another thing that is still a work in progress: a state energy policy. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist said he wanted 20 percent of Florida's electricity to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2020. The governor also wanted to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, require higher energy efficiency standards and prevent drilling for oil off Florida's beaches. But when gasoline prices reached record highs, Crist supported lifting a 26-year-old federal ban on offshore drilling, then changed his position after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
To be fair, there's been some good. Florida's Legislature passed HB 697 a couple of years ago, which addressed some of Crist's ideas. And the Public Service Commission rejected a proposed coal-fired plant near Everglades National Park in 2007.
However, the Legislature has not fully embraced a renewable energy portfolio or energy efficiency standards. And while natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, natural gas is not renewable.
"The Legislature has failed to act, so Florida has lacked the policies to attract investment and innovation," said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "For the most part, Florida is sitting on the sidelines of the clean energy race. I would say that in 2007, Florida held a great deal of hope, and now the shine is off."
A real never-never land
Here is evidence of unbridled optimism that went bust: 1,000 vacant acres planned for elegant housing, untamed grass running wild over the barely built environment, street signs marking nowhere, unfinished asphalt roads -- and graffiti-scrawled irony. It's Artisan Lakes, not Disney World. Although this might as well be Anywhere, USA consumed by the Great Recession.
Five years ago, the Bradenton Herald reported that developers had hoped to build more than 30,000 permitted single-family houses in rural northern Manatee County to keep pace with inflated demand. Artisan Lakes would have had at least 2,600. But the Dow Jones plunged. Jobs were lost. So were homes. Now we live in an uncertain aftermath.
"We've overbuilt in all the wrong places," said Bill Belleville, author of Losing It All To Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape. "One of the reasons that our elected officials allow new development is that we show a need for it, but the fact is that we already have enough housing approved - it's an astronomical figure - that would more than take care of new population growth for quite a while to come."
No one can say with certainty how many subdivisions like Artisan Lakes exist in Florida; there is no official count. The Sanford resident and filmmaker added, "What happens in Florida is that good planning gets compromised with politics, and the people with the money run the politics, and the people with the money are in the development industry."
Waiting to take wing
On Jaybird Drive, several turkey vultures and a crow form their own neighborhood watch, though there's not much to see right now. About 75 percent of the lots on this street are vacant. There is a smattering of new-home construction in the subdivision, Pasco County's The Commons at Asbel Estates. And while relatively new houses abound on other roads, it is the only spot on this stretch that shows economic activity — a sales sign indicates that the birds' perch has been sold, and this home is now under construction. But in Florida, supply still far exceeds demand.
Despite this economic reality, the Florida Legislature passed the controversial SB 360 last year, which allows developers in the most urban counties to proceed with their projects without paying to expand roads that would be affected. It also lets cities and counties designate new urban areas that would be exempt from road-building requirements. Though the law has been challenged in court, proponents claimed it would stem Florida's unemployment rate that eventually surpassed 12 percent and would encourage urban redevelopment by freeing developers from unnecessary regulation.
Opponents countered that the law defines urban density as one person per acre, so a farmhouse in a pasture can be an urban area. And taxpayers, not developers, would foot the extra costs for transportation improvements. Not to mention, at least 300,000 vacant homes sit on the Florida market. That number could be as high as 600,000, according to Arthur C. Nelson, presidential professor and director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. Contrary to 20th century trends, Nelson's recent research has concluded that average household sizes are increasing. This is, in part, due to economic necessity. Of course, the mortgage meltdown didn't help.
"That's one thing about the markets, the markets will force you to change your practice," Nelson said. Still, it's hard to deny that the state seems stuck in a perpetual Ground Hog Day, always reliant on building anytime and nearly anywhere we want to, dating back as early as the boom and bust days before the Great Depression. "This should be the wake-up call to do things differently or at least diversify the economy so that you're not depending on one aspect of it," said Charles Pattison, president of 1,000 Friends of Florida, who opposed SB 360. "We're going to need some longer-range visions of what Florida should become or should be."
This includes policies that limit sprawl, foster land conservation and diversify transportation options. Pattison continued: "To do some of the things we're talking about, it is going to take a consistent, longer range view which I think unfortunately is difficult to sustain politically in Florida."