Tampa’s sidewalk ordinance advances, but questions remain

Three members of City Council signaled that their final votes are still up in the air.
If the ordinance passes a final vote on Dec. 2, it will make it more difficult for home builders to avoid putting in a sidewalk.
If the ordinance passes a final vote on Dec. 2, it will make it more difficult for home builders to avoid putting in a sidewalk. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2021|Updated Oct. 21, 2021

TAMPA — A code overhaul that would force developers to build more sidewalks or require them to pay the city to do so advanced Thursday by a 6-1 vote.

At issue: Tampa has 1,300 miles of streets without sidewalks on both sides. That’s 54 miles longer than a car drive between Florida’s third-largest city and Kansas City, Mo.

But the ordinance, which would eliminate a variety of ways for home builders to skip requirements to put in a sidewalk, faced questions from three council members: Chairman Orlando Gudes, Charlie Miranda and Joseph Citro.

Related: Mayor Jane Castor backs code changes to build more sidewalks in Tampa

They all signaled that their final vote on Dec. 2 will rely on more information and possible changes, including Miranda’s call for an investigation into how the city’s sidewalk trust fund has been managed and how money has been spent.

As it stands now, their votes may not matter. Four council members currently support the ordinance as it is: Luis Viera, Bill Carlson, Guido Maniscalco and its champion, John Dingfelder.

Still, the margin is now narrower for the overhaul to the city’s sidewalk policy, backed publicly by Mayor Jane Castor this week in a news conference in West Tampa. It’s been part of a years-long quest from activist groups like WalkBike Tampa and the Sidewalk Stompers.

Dingfelder said the changes, pushed for by advocates, were “long overdue.”

City code was changed about a decade ago, which created a “big loophole,” according to Dingfelder. Closing that loophole could raise up to $1 million a year for the city in revenue, he said.

City officials don’t “own” that figure, said Vik Bhide, the city’s mobility director. But there is no doubt that the city needs to start building more sidewalks, he said. Developers say revenue lost to exemptions is less than half that of the figure cited by WalkBike Tampa researchers.

Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president for the Tampa Bay Builders Association, asked council members to delay consideration of the ordinance for a month so that the measure can get “a little bit of tweaking.” She argued that council members didn’t want to saddle homeowners with unintended costs when they renovated their homes.

Her argument failed to persuade council members. Maniscalco noted that city code only required sidewalks for major renovations that exceed half the assessed value of a home, not minor projects like a bathroom or kitchen remodel.

And the current cost for a sidewalk, even if raised to $75 per linear foot as Castor has said is necessary, is several thousand dollars, a tiny portion of new homes that often list for $400,000 up to $1 million, Dingfelder said.

Related: Tampa sidewalks slipped through a crack. Who should pay to build more?

“We’re way behind,” Maniscalco said. “Now we’re playing catch up.”

The city shouldn’t be using the trust fund to repair sidewalks, just to build new ones, Miranda said. Nor has the city provided a transparent accounting of where trust fund money has been spent, he said. And he called for the city to figure out if builders received any improper exemptions.

Miranda was the only no vote Thursday.

“It’s not being done right,” Miranda said.

His concerns were echoed in part by Gudes and Citro, who said they wanted more attention paid by city staff to the builder’s concerns.

“I’m hoping for common ground,” Citro said.

WalkBike Tampa president Janet Scherberger thanked council members for taking up the issue, which has been percolating for three years.

It’s time to vote, she urged council members. And they did.