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Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Tower objections don’t hold up

Tampa City Council recently delayed a vote on a proposed residential tower near the Straz Center for the Performing Arts after opponents claimed it would ruin its surroundings. Council members need to take a cool-headed look at the facts. They will find critics’ objections are largely false or inflated. The 36-story apartment complex is a good deal for the city, one that will improve access to the public library, Straz Center and Hillsborough River while further revitalizing downtown. The $85 million high-rise will be built on a 1-acre parcel the city will make available by putting together two landscaped medians, parts of the roads in front of the Straz and a bit of the center’s entranceway. Developers will pay the city $4 million. It is, by all means, appropriate to carefully scrutinize the impacts of all this. But any objective review will find the structure should bring benefits far beyond the additional $1 million it will generate in property taxes each year.
The criticisms don’t hold up. Consider the claim that the tower will wall off the Hillsborough River. The building will be 220 feet from the river, hardly an encroachment considering the nearby Tampa Museum of Art is 67 feet from the river and the Straz Center is 125 feet. The project will make the river more accessible. Riverwalk visitors now encounter a dead-end at the Cass Street Bridge. As part of the development, a walkway will be built from Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to the tower, where there will be a pedestrian crossing on Cass Street. People will be able to cross the street safely and continue to walk along the river. Moreover, the reconfiguration of the streets that will accompany the development will allow landscaping between the building and the river that will make the daunting area where Tyler and Cass streets now merge immensely more attractive. Former Hillsborough County Commissioner and library champion Jan Platt worries the project will limit downtown parking, particularly for the John F. Germany Public Library. But the complex will contain all the parking it will need. The city’s William F. Poe Garage spaces won’t be used. Moreover, the enclosed walkway from the garage across Cass Street to the library will remain. In reality, public access to the library and the Straz should improve as the city reworks Cass and Tyler. Turning Cass into a two-way street will slow cars on Cass and reduce traffic on Tyler. This will make the roads far more pedestrian friendly and create more surface parking. Last year the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library Board endorsed the city’s realignment plan, which its chairman noted would address the “serious dysfunction of these streets.” The road overhaul will particularly benefit Straz, allowing the center’s now painfully cramped arrival court to double its capacity. That is why the Straz Center’s board of directors has endorsed the project. Platt objects to plans for the bottom floor of the tower to include 10,000 square feet of retail. She says that is inappropriate next to the Straz. But such lively surroundings should make an outing to the center even more appealing. In any event, people attending the Straz now are promptly greeted by a retail shop — the center’s own delightful gift shop. We doubt they will find other stores offensive. Indeed, this project, expected to add another 500 residents downtown, should bring more energy and commerce to what the city has long envisioned as a cultural district. Another complaint being heard is that the units will be rental, not condominiums. But as Mayor Bob Buckhorn points out, the market now is only financing rental. The residences will be designed to be converted into condominiums when the market allows. These won’t be shabby apartments, but high-end rentals — the type of dwellings that mobile, creative people want. More understandable is the fear the tower will overwhelm neighboring structures. But it will be designed so the lower floors do not loom over the street. Nearby residential towers Skypoint and Element — built by one of this project’s developers — show high-rises built with character and visual appeal can enhance an urban neighborhood. Council members by no means should approve any project that comes along simply to promote downtown development. But a careful look at the plans and the numbers will show this needlessly controversial tower will improve the downtown’s looks, functions and prospects.
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