TAMPA — Nearly 600,000 more people will live in Hillsborough County by 2040, and if elected officials and county planners don’t take bold steps now, the population boom will turn the county into the soulless sprawl of Anywhere, U.S.A.
That’s the message county leaders heard Friday from a panel of urban planning experts who recently studied Hillsborough’s population trends and growth blueprints.
At the county’s request, the Urban Land Institute, an organization focused on responsible growth, sent a team of advisers to Hillsborough this past week to offer solutions to the region’s persistent growth issues. As part of their research, they interviewed 95 people, from elected officials to business and environmental leaders, and reviewed the county’s land policies.
The advisers focused on a stretch along the Interstate 4 corridor between east Tampa and Plant City as a prime location to implement smarter growth policies.
With both Tampa and Orlando booming, it’s just a matter of time before developers start putting bulldozers into the ground on the route connecting the two areas. If the county acts now, it can guide the construction to prevent further stresses on the region’s roads and promote dense, community-centric building, the institute’s panelists said.
On its current trajectory, Hillsborough and Tampa make up one of the least dense regions in the country when measured against competing cities like Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas.
"The county really needs to see this as an inflection point," said Alan Razak, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer and consultant and one of the institute’s advisers. "This isn’t a choice. Change is going to happen. It’s how you manage that change."
The group of advisers suggested the county plan to develop three communities along the interstate. They would be dense (condominiums and apartments, no single-family houses) and walkable (no bigger than a mile radius). They would have space for commercial storefronts and offices, but no industrial facilities. They would have their own individual characteristics that give residents and workers a sense of place.
Think Dunedin, not Carrollwood.
These three small communities would support more than 55,000 jobs and 33,000 people.
The advisers offered suggestions on how to make it happen:
• Hold the Urban Service Area — where government functions such as roads and utilities are concentrated and development is encouraged — at its existing boundary for five to eight years.
• During that time, plan for the future and how leaders want the communities to look.
• When the time is right, extend the urban service boundary strategically. Incentivize growth that matches the plan, like redevelopment, and discourage construction that further stresses existing road, stormwater, fire and school systems.
• Plan for transit expansion as communities become more dense.
• Require growth to pay for itself with fees that factor in the cost of new construction on county resources and infrastructure systems.
"You will be under enormous pressure over the next 25 years to expand the (urban service) boundary. Don’t do it," Razak said. "You have a precious resource here that you don’t want to squander because if you lose it, you’re gone."
The presentation won praise from commissioners across the political spectrum.
Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat, called it a "watershed for us." Republican Commissioner Victor Crist said he was skeptical of the exercise at first but thought the results were "well-balanced" and "realistic."
The next step is action. In the past, county commissioners have been very good at collecting input but less so at executing it.
Commissioner Sandy Murman said it was on the board to make it happen.
"This is a long-term thing we have to commit ourselves to," she said. "We’ve allowed sprawl without having those centers of influence."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.