1. Opinion

Plan pumps life into downtown Tampa

Published Nov. 27, 2012

The master plan for downtown that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn unveiled Tuesday would bring a new flair and vibrancy to the city center. With sidewalks and bike trails, shaded parks along the Hillsborough River and bustle from new residences and retail, downtown would be the place to live, work and play and a magnet for thousands who live in historic neighborhoods to the north, west and east.

The plan, a year in the making, marks the most ambitious effort yet to reverse decades of bad urban design that left the downtown riverfront blocked from view and downtown's streets a precarious place to drive, walk or open a business. By making the downtown more livable, Tampa hopes to attract the talent and character modern cities need to compete in the global economy.

The plan aims high and looks to remake what in places is a bleak landscape of offices, vacant land and surface parking lots into a mixed community of homes, shops and businesses. The city already has many assets to attract people to the area, from historic architecture to the river, parks and new museums. The problem is that these amenities can be blocks apart, tied together by nothing but dangerous streets. The plan would slow down auto traffic, downsize some roads to make room for sidewalks and bike paths, and establish open sight lines to the water. The core suggestion — "Walking should be recognized as the fundamental mode of transportation within the center city" — would reverse urban thinking in a city where downtown was always just a place to do business.

The plan does not overlook the details, either. It calls for more parks to give the channel district a sense of identity, extending the ribbon of green space along both banks of the river and spending money on benches and trees so pedestrians can enjoy the outdoors in the Florida heat. The city would work with local industries to offer targeted tax and job development incentives to bring skilled labor and startups to town. It would ensure the parks and sidewalks are clean and safe, work to expand rapid transit bus service, promote live-where-you-work grants among teachers and other downtown workers, and upgrade electrical and drainage facilities.

The city will need to ensure that the parks remain mostly for passive recreation, and that any job or development incentives serve a clear public purpose. With a timetable that could easily outlast Buckhorn's term in office, the plan must be durable so that future mayors follow through on the progress Buckhorn and his predecessors already started. And the city should work with local universities and other institutions to make downtown's makeover a true incubator that attracts new industry.

The blueprint is an exciting start. It promises, as Buckhorn said, to set the table by attracting private capital downtown and by serving as a guide to keep the city focused over the long term. This is a serious effort conceived through broad community input, which offers hope it will be successful.