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  1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: Traffic jams may darken bright future for Tampa's downtown

A Tampa downtown renaissance now under way brings to mind the 1970s, when the future looked bright, too, but when local leaders failed to plan for the infrastructure all the growth would require.
A Tampa downtown renaissance now under way brings to mind the 1970s, when the future looked bright, too, but when local leaders failed to plan for the infrastructure all the growth would require.
Published Jul. 10, 2017

If the past truly is prologue, it might be worth a backward glance to the Tampa of the 1970s. What happened then might serve as a cautionary tale for where we're headed now.

Tampa's tallest building back then rose just 22 stories until the 36-story building we know as the Park Tower opened in 1973. Game-changer. It was at the time the tallest building in Florida, and it was a symbol of things to come.

The skyline might not have resembled midtown Manhattan, but folks here knew things were happening. The National Football League expanded to Tampa. The stadium where the Buccaneers would eventually play was enlarged.

We already had a terrific airport and soon more tall buildings began to reshape the look of downtown.

I mention all this because the same type of energy exists now as back then. We know about Jeff Vinik's $3 billion Water Street Tampa project. A major expansion has been ongoing at Tampa International Airport and that could attract new businesses and tourists.

The much-discussed, finally built Riverwalk has changed downtown. There are parks, museums, Broadway shows. You know a city is on the move when one of the biggest problems is finding enough downtown parking.

Thousands of new people, with new ideas, are moving here every year. The natural instinct is to want more, but first breathe in deeply and face this basic question: Are we ready for this?

I ask because in hindsight we weren't ready back in the '70s, and the change reshaping Tampa daily now is similar now to what was happening then.

People got caught up in the slogan, "America's Next Great City," back then and it's certainly fine to dream big. If you're going to do that, though, you'd better also plan for how to be big. That's where things came up short before. Leaders got blinded by the baubles and neglected to plan for infrastructure that could support their goals.

Our road system became a hodge-podge of construction barrels, brake lights and potholes. Places like Brandon and New Tampa, once considered to be out in the country, have been choked by growth, thanks largely to a county commission that rubber-stamped development without considering the impact.

That created problems that will take billions of dollars to fix.

I'm as dazzled as anyone about Vinik's vision for the Channel District, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been relentless in promoting downtown as a place for people young and old to live, work and play.

But you know that parking problem I mentioned?

While Vinik's plan does include extra parking and so on, a project like this creates exponential growth. Consider what things will look like when you add thousands of downtown residents to a mix that includes business, entertainment and sports in a relatively confined area.

Let's say there is a big concert at Amalie Arena, while down the street there's a large gathering at the Tampa Convention Center.

Throw in a crowd flocking to the Straz Center for the latest hit show. As long as we're imagining things, let's say the Rays are playing the Yankees at the new downtown ball yard as downtown dwellers stroll the streets and Riverwalk in search of food and drink.

It's not much of a stretch, is it?

That's all great stuff, and with the proper planning a city like the one we live in should be able to handle it.

Ah yes, "proper planning." That's the rub.

How do all those people get around? There had better be more options than we have now.

How long will people be willing to venture downtown from the suburbs if the exit ramps to downtown are backed up for a mile? Better ask that question now. The first phase of Vinik's project is supposed to be ready in about three years.

Will Tampa be ready?