NEW PORT RICHEY — There used to be a popular bumper sticker along Pasco County’s western coast that read: “Pray for me. I drive U.S. 19.″ But over the last couple of decades, the land surrounding the road has been just as big a problem as the highway itself.
During the boom years, new restaurants and trendy stores. But now, after decades of economic decline, the landscape is laden with empty storefronts, vacant strip centers, used car lots and overgrown stretches that have turned into homeless camps.
As regional planners this week presented a 56-page plan to commissioners showing the potential transformation of the U.S. 19 corridor in the years ahead, Pasco leaders responded that the region is on the verge of big changes.
The study by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council provided specific concepts for two of the roadway’s key locations with potential for redevelopment — the Gulfview Square Mall in Port Richey and the Universal Plaza in Holiday.
The plans replace parking lots and unused offices and storefronts with multi-story, mixed-use buildings, surrounded by walking trails, more attractive storm water ponds, green buffers and recreational amenities.
While commissioners were interested in the concepts, which are designed to guide conversations with landowners and developers in the future, county officials hinted that the ideas may not just be projections.
David Engel, Pasco’s economic growth director, said that there is currently interest in major redevelopment projects. Specifically, he said, there have been talks from one developer to build towers 15 to 20 stories high along the gulf in Pasco County, and there are multiple potential projects in discussion along U.S. 19..
“We’re getting some of the big players coming in from New York and Miami,” said commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey. “It’s very exciting.”
The plan by the regional planning council reflects the area that Pasco officials years ago dubbed the West Market or Harbors Area, along the gulf. The study, paid for by federal COVID-19 relief dollars, identifies four specific areas for study but focuses detailed redevelopment models for the mall in Port Richey and Universal Plaza, a strip shopping center north of Moog Road in Holiday.
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Both locations have unused store spaces and large parking lots and have experienced flooding in the past, said Sarah Vitale, senior planner and urban designer for the planning council.
Making future development more flood resistant is a key component of the plan, she said, noting that 44 percent of the Harbors area is designated as a “coastal high hazard” zone prone to flooding even with a tropical storm that doesn’t reach hurricane strength. So components of the concept plan address flooding and place an emphasis on multi-story buildings.
Commissioner Jack Mariano pointed out that when the developers of the multifamily housing area behind the Gulfview Square Mall were getting started, he was a big fan of seeing higher structures. As the presentation showed, stripped along the back side of the mall property is the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park and, beyond that, a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Vitale noted that was a potential public draw for whatever gets developed at the location.
Vitale said that the redevelopment plan, which features wide walkways and alleys, was designed to make the site “more like a town center ... rather than just a place to shop.” The plans should be focused on economic development but also workforce housing so that people can live and work in the same area, she said.
Vitale also noted that the size of the mall parcel makes it attractive for a full plan. “You can do a lot with 85 acres,” she said.
Mariano said that he was concerned that the concept plan had a focus on the potential flooding issues at the two locations. He said he was confident that storm water improvement projects done by the county in recent years had already improved flooding problems in several communities along U.S. 19.
Starkey also had another concern. She thought the plans were too “car centric.”
Starkey, a big advocate for walking and biking trails, told Vitale that she would be in touch to talk more about her ideas for making the projects more accessible for people not traveling by car.