Editorial: Tampa City Council should not rush to buy land to park trucks

Published June 25, 2014

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's plan to redevelop the West River area could transform life along the downtown waterfront. And for that effort to succeed, the city needs to move a truck barn that is hogging valuable real estate. But the plan Buckhorn wants the City Council to approve today looks rash and needlessly expensive. The city should put the brakes on this proposal and look for a better way to leverage this valuable property.

The West River plan calls for replacing a World War II-era public housing project and an adjoining commercial core with new apartments, shops and parks that slope to the western bank of the Hillsborough River at the north end of downtown. With 90 percent of the 120 acres publicly owned, the plan amounts to a blank canvas that allows the city to create a master plan for an entirely new neighborhood. With half the property bordering on the waterfront, it is prime real estate that could meet new demand for downtown-area living. The most ambitious city project in decades, the build-out would bring new and better jobs, higher incomes and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the city.

One essential task in turning around this urban wasteland is for the city to relocate an open yard for large utility vehicles and other heavy equipment. The land, relatively high, overlooks the river and downtown — ideal for apartments or almost anything other than a parking lot for city trucks. The mayor wants council members to approve a proposal today to spend $1.8 million for land and engineering studies to relocate the truck yard to east Tampa. This is a rush-job that could saddle taxpayers with $15 million in spending for new buildings the city might not need.

Buying the land and spending money now on engineers all but commits the council to dig deep later after construction plans are completed. The city should first exhaust all other options. Can it consolidate the operations at existing city sites? What about working with Hillsborough County to park city trucks with county vehicles? The county has land available, but the city hasn't asked. And what are the space needs for these vehicles and operations over the next 20 or 30 years?

The most troubling aspect is the supposed sense of urgency. The truck yard is not the best use of this land, but it's not stopping development, either. Developers have talked for a decade about turning the land into condos or shops. Vacating it now without a buyer creates the worst of both worlds: The city would have to buy land to move the trucks even as it loses out on rising property values for land it already owns. And having the property sit vacant would make the city look desperate to take the first offer that came along.

The Buckhorn administration is right that the trucks have to go, but there are many questions to answer and no compelling argument for moving forward today.