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In Channel District, gridlock is a growing pain

(ran LT edition of National)

On New Year's Eve, traffic was such a mess in the Channel District that some people who paid up to $90 each for tickets to a swanky party at the Florida Aquarium couldn't get there.

The aquarium had to offer refunds or free tickets to future events to 26 peeved partygoers.

The gridlock occurred because of a convergence of big events - fireworks at Channelside, a party at the aquarium and a concert at the St. Pete Times Forum.

But increasingly, transportation issues are a routine concern in and around the Channel District, an area once considered an industrial wasteland that's now the forefront of residential development in Tampa's urban core.

The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better, because the development keeps on coming.

The City Council tonight will consider a rezoning request to allow a developer to build two 30-story condo towers with a total of 250 units and ground-level retail at Channelside and Beneficial drives. Many residents of Harbour Island oppose the project. They say traffic already makes them prisoners in their homes or unable to get to them.

At the same time, some Channel District residents are opposing a strategic plan for their neighborhood that they say allows too much development. They say it will overburden the already stressed roads, and change the character of the neighborhood, which at its center has a funky feel with buildings that top out at about 12 stories.

The council today will schedule a time when the public can comment on the plan, which suggests allowing buildings of up to 25 stories in the center of the district and up to 35 stories on the edges.

Mark Huey, the city's economic development manager, said the $305,000 plan created by consultant Wilson-Miller and paid for with property tax money raised in the district, could serve as a growth-management model for all of Tampa.

It proposes allowing developers to build the taller buildings only if they pay for such things as bus service, streetcar operations, public parking, the Riverwalk and parks. It also suggests getting developers to pay for school construction throughout the city in exchange for more development rights.

The plan has critics on both sides of the debate.

"The development community feels like we're not allowing for enough density and height. The residents feel like we're providing too much," Huey said.

He hopes there will be a middle ground.

"What we're trying to do is bring the best thinking about what an urban downtown neighborhood can be to our future planning of the district," he said.

Yes, traffic and parking are problematic in the Channel District, Huey said. Yes, it's likely to get worse.

But traffic and parking problems plague all big cities, he said.

The solution is not to curb development, which is an economic engine and will get more people to live downtown, he said. The answer is to promote public transportation, he said.

Channel District resident Jimmie Overton said the Wilson-Miller plan has been hijacked by developers and city officials who want to push growth and sacrifice quality of life.

"I don't think this plan is what we paid for," he said. "I expected a design plan that says what is best for this community. Instead, it's a compromise to make the developers happy."

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena praises the plan for its vision of lively streets, with shops and cafes and details such as street lamps, arty sidewalks and landscaping. But the high-impact buildings worry her.

"I'm very concerned that what's being proposed is just too much," she said. "My feeling is we have to be very careful not to allow overbuilding and overdevelopment."

Tall buildings with lots of condos make more sense in downtown's central business district northwest of the Channel District, an area that already allows high-rises, has wider streets than the Channel District, and buried electrical lines, Saul-Sena said.

People with an interest in the Channel District's entertainment venues support the Wilson-Miller plan, which calls for $53-million in improvements to roads, stormwater, sewer and electrical systems and $56-million to gussy up the streets.

Guy Revelle, who owns two restaurants in the Channelside entertainment complex, likes the strategic plan. "Residential rooftops are huge for us," he said.

Parking is a major problem, he said. Yet, he still plans to speak in support of the condo project at the City Council meeting tonight, even though it will put two buildings on what is now a parking lot.

The parking and traffic nightmares now hit only on weekends, Revelle said. He wants people packing the Channel District restaurants and shops every night of the week. More homes will make that happen. "We can't stop economic development because we have congestion. We have to fix the problem," he said.

More public transportation is critical, he said.

A good start would be extending the hours and length of the streetcar, which now doesn't begin running until 11 a.m. The closest stop to downtown is near the Marriott Waterside Hotel, too far to walk to the business district, especially given Florida's heat and rain

The few people who live in the Channel District have to drive from their homes to their offices just a few blocks away, he said.

Thom Stork, executive director of the Florida Aquarium, said the the Wilson-Miller plan is a good one that addresses all the key issues.

"Three years ago, there was nothing here," he said. "But now, it's exciting to see people living and breathing and working in the Channel District. It's becoming an active community. We have to be very conscious of all the needs in this community as we move forward."