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Can Tampa Bay keep growing without losing its soul?

St. Petersburg and Tampa are looking to cities like Austin to find out.
A view of the city of St. Petersburg from the St. Pete Pier on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 with construction of buildings joining the skyline. Tampa Bay is joining the ranks of cities like Austin, Phoenix, Boulder for being the next hot "it" place to be.
A view of the city of St. Petersburg from the St. Pete Pier on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 with construction of buildings joining the skyline. Tampa Bay is joining the ranks of cities like Austin, Phoenix, Boulder for being the next hot "it" place to be. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 2|Updated Mar. 4

City planning leaders from across the country were impressed by what they saw on Central Avenue when Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown Partnership of St. Petersburg, took them for a tour last week.

He pointed out the energy buzzing around local restaurants, boutiques and breweries. Afterward, those guests gathered at the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art to discuss a pressing issue affecting the Tampa Bay area: The region is growing fast, but can it keep doing so without losing what makes it great in the first place?

“What we have on Central Avenue is increasingly rare in America,” Mathis said. “And if people want to preserve that aspect of who we are as a city, we absolutely can do it. But it’s going to be hard.”

That’s why Mathis brought leaders from Austin, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boulder, Colo., to St. Petersburg for the city’s first development summit hosted by the Downtown Partnership and the Urban Land Institute of Tampa Bay on Feb. 17. Most of these out-of-town officials have seen similar changes happen in their own cities. Mathis said he hoped Tampa Bay could learn from their successes — and their failures.

“We just might be loving St. Pete to death,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch while at the summit, recalling what a resident had told him recently.

“We can’t risk losing all the things that make our city special. The qualities, lifestyle and amenities that lured this immense influx of new residents,” Welch said. “Private investment to St. Petersburg must be preserved. We must protect and preserve our authenticity.”

Related: Fleeing to Florida? New arrivals explain why they moved to Tampa Bay

One of the most pointed examples leaders discussed is the capital of Texas.

When Cathie Wood, a prominent technology investor, moved the headquarters of Ark Invest from New York City to St. Petersburg, she said the city was “the next Austin.” The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area was named the top housing market in the U.S. by Zillow this year, taking Austin’s former spot.

Austin was once considered an affordable city, but has increasingly become one of the most expensive.

“When a city grows and attracts people, and you can’t keep up with the growth, affordability across the board is a huge issue,” said Molly Alexander, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation.

The Tampa Bay area is also at risk. Tampa saw a 29.4 percent jump in home prices, according to to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index. It was the second-highest yearly gains out of the 20 largest cities in the country last year. Phoenix was the only city to see a sharper spike.

Home values have gone up not only in the city cores of Tampa and St. Petersburg, but even higher in Pasco, Hernando and south Hillsborough counties neighborhoods, according to data from Florida Realtors.

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If people want to keep living in the Austin or Tampa Bay area, but can’t afford to, they’ll have to shoulder higher transportation costs from living in further suburbs, Alexander said. Food costs also go up. So does rent for businesses.

“Everything begins to feel like a rubber band. Things get to be really tight,“ Alexander said.

As Austin’s growth exploded, Alexander said she wishes the city recognized what made it valuable. Could Austin still be Austin without the artists and live music scene that attracted people to move in the first place? Even as the city became more expensive, Alexander said creatives’ pay checks haven’t kept up.

“We value real estate,” Alexander said. “But we don’t always value the people that make that real estate dynamic and interesting.”

Controlling real estate prices is difficult for developing a city, Alexander said. There has to be a delicate balance of the public, private and local government to figure out what the shared vision for the community is.

A view of the streetcars in Ybor City Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Tampa city planning director Stephen Benson said many parts around downtown still have the framework for streetcars. As the region grows, he said it could be one part of keeping the city's character and addressing growing transportation issues.
A view of the streetcars in Ybor City Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Tampa city planning director Stephen Benson said many parts around downtown still have the framework for streetcars. As the region grows, he said it could be one part of keeping the city's character and addressing growing transportation issues. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The city of Tampa is currently crafting its vision through 2045. State law mandates cities update their comprehensive plans every seven years to address evolving needs. City planning director Stephen Benson told the Tampa Bay Times this time officials are undergoing a significant reevaluation.

Tampa is expected to grow by 100,000 more residents by 2045, with 77,000 new homes, Benson said. City projections show about a quarter of a million more jobs in the city.

Related: As Tampa’s shiny downtown rises, an old flour mill, and history, disappear

“We want to grow in a way that is unique to Tampa,” Benson said. “There’s a lot of different perspectives exist about what Tampa is... from folks that have lived here forever and even the newcomers who came here because Tampa is so unique. We want to make sure that we factor in Tampa’s identity into the way that we grow in the future.”

Transit and housing are the biggest concerns since the city can only grow up and out, Benson said. There will be more new jobs in Tampa than housing, which will force people to live outside the city. While it might not eliminate all of these issues, Benson said the comprehensive plan aims to set a framework for policies that will make them easier on residents.

Both Benson and Mathis said there will always be pushback to Tampa Bay’s rapid development, but change is inevitable. In Boulder, Colo., officials tried to stop it but weren’t successful.

“We just don’t call it development,” said Cris Jones, the city’s director of community vitality.

In 1950s, the town was concerned about the rapid growth happening in Denver and what it would it do to the quality of life and the local culture, Jones said. The local government bought up 45,000 acres around the valley, called the Greenbelt, with plans for it to never be developed. They also put strict building height limits in place to protect the mountain view — no building can be over 55 feet tall and any building higher than 35 feet needs approval from city council.

“There’s only a select few (developers) that actually have gotten a really good understanding of the motivations of the community and also the design requirements,” Jones said.

But that hasn’t keep home prices from skyrocketing in Boulder, where the average house costs about $1.1 million.

As more people move to the Tampa Bay area, adopting anti-development sentiments to keep things the same isn’t the answer, Mathis said.

”There will be unintended consequences for not accommodating the growth that we are seeing as a community,” Mathis said. “As we grow, our community is going to lose some of the things that have made us special, but we’re also going to gain some new things that we probably can’t foresee right now that will also enhance this place that we love.”

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