Spotlight on Sustainability: Tampa, FL uses new technologies to chart a new direction for the city

A downtown Tampa streetcar. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Willamor Media.

Leaders in Tampa, Florida are working to reverse the sprawl that has left their downtown area sparsely populated and stifled economic development. A Community Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is aimed to help make it happen.

The city’s planning efforts, organized under the banner of InVision Tampa, aim to create a vision plan for a downtown core, a transit corridor plan to increase transportation choices in the region, and update the city’s building codes. Each of these are designed to stimulate downtown Tampa’s residential, business, and retail economy, and set the entire city on a course for a better future.

“We are hoping to change the entire face of our urban core. Our urban core is quite a bit like other aging cities. Suburbanization and forces over 50 years have pushed people out,” says Randy Goers, Urban Planning Coordinator and Project Manager for InVision Tampa. “Over the next 15 years, we want to remake the urban core and create a dense, diverse, populated area.”

While Tampa, like many cities, has always had a central business district that composed its downtown, it was not until the 1980s that any residential development was put in place. The city is seeking to jumpstart residential downtown activity, identifying spots along the river as opportunities for redevelopment.

So far, efforts to draw people downtown have been successful. “There are currently 1800 multifamily units under construction or permitted to break ground in the next 12 months,” says Goers. “People want to be near the river and to be connected.” To address this desire for connectivity, the city is looking to identify an east-west transit connection over the river between the University of Tampa and an emerging medical office district, especially as bus ridership has grown.

All these goals have been outlined in InVision Tampa’s draft master plan, which was released on November 27. The plan has five goals that guide the process:

1. Refocus development along the river to make it the center of downtown and accessible to all people
2. Strengthen neighborhoods, respecting the character of each one
3. Create connections that are transit-oriented and pedestrian-oriented between neighborhoods, downtown, and the river
4. Create a public realm that is attractive for pedestrians and supportive of private investment
5. Build transit-ready places

With strong and vocal support from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the planning process has been widely and positively received by many Tampa residents. InVision Tampa has used a combination of traditional public meetings as well as a robust online engagement strategy, employing Facebook, YouTube, and MindMixer, an online forum for discussing issues of local concern. The city has also used more innovative strategies, including a video contest asking residents to highlight what they love most about their neighborhoods and a series of walking tours to allow residents to point out their favorite aspects of the city in person. Another strategy gave Tampa residents cameras, having them take pictures of their communities in order to create a visual palette for the planners.

“I think it’s more important to hear from all different perspectives – businesses, workers, people living there [downtown], older people, younger people, people of different ethnicities,” Goers says, which is why the city has taken this multifaceted approach to engagement to comprehensively gauge what Tampa residents want for the future.

And at the more traditional planning meetings, city planners brought in officials and planners from other cities that have undertaken similar efforts. “We held four large community meetings,” Goers says, “inviting the community to hear people talk about other cities: what’s worked, what could work in Tampa.”

He continues, “If people could see something happening in other cities, they’d ask ‘why can’t that happen here?’ and ‘what do we need to do to make that happen?’” With its new master plan, Tampa is well on its way to answering these questions.

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