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Vinik’s planner, Jeff Speck, has vision for walkable Tampa

TAMPA — There wasn’t a parking space to be found at the Oxford Exchange on Monday night as acclaimed city planner Jeff Speck spoke on changes that would make Tampa a walkable city.

Speck, of course, elected to walk to the event from his downtown hotel.

Scores of Tampa’s city planners, transportation specialists and city officials came to hear Speck talk about his latest book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” and suss out the details of the $1 billion project he’s spearheading with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik to revitalize 40 acres of waterfront property near Channelside Bay Plaza and the Amalie Arena.

It was the book that landed Speck his job working with Vinik, who, like Speck, hails from Greater Boston. Speck was tight-lipped about the project but gave a few clues to the audience on what they can expect. To start, he would like to ease his harrowing walk from the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, across the Platt Street bridge to the Oxford Exchange across from the University of Tampa.

“My host told me where to park, and when I asked if I could walk said he’d pick me up,” Speck told the crowd at the restaurant, book store and gift shop. “Even with the barrier of steel when walking across the Platt Street bridge, I still had that rush of adrenaline that my life could be in danger. This happens a lot in Tampa.”

Making a pedestrian’s walk feel safe and visually interesting, like in Ybor City, is key to Speck’s plan around the Channel District.

One of the biggest complaints public works officials receive is about the traffic around the Tampa area, yet adding more lanes to accommodate more cars only encourages more traffic, Speck said. In addition, when traffic goes away people are encouraged to move farther away from their offices or may choose not to carpool, which goes against efforts to make the city more pedestrian friendly.

Meridian Avenue, near the Channel District, has seven lanes of traffic, which should accommodate 35,000 cars a day. However, only about 5,800 actually use the street, Speck said. That extra space could be used to add wide bike paths and parallel parking, which serves as a “wall of steel” making sidewalks feel safer.

“I’ve reached the conclusion that number of lanes are the principal determinant of whether people will choose to walk in your city,” Speck said. “You need to give pedestrians the feeling they have a fighting chance against being run down by an automobile.”

Despite the big lanes, Tampa was designed with smaller blocks than the average city, which makes it “exceptionally poised” to become safe and walkable and provides “good bones” for diverse blocks of housing, offices, churches and retail, Speck said.

The city is already working to re-stripe many one-way streets into two-way streets, which will cause drivers to slow down and roads to become safer for everyone, Speck said. Another prudent move would be to make some streets’ width narrower, like the neighborhoods around Hyde Park, so cars have to slow to pass each other.

Around Channelside, “swooped” intersections that are designed to be easier for motorist to travel will be replaced with traditional “T” intersections, which will be safer for pedestrians, Speck said.

Those changes would also be useful in the area around the University of South Florida, said Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione, who represents the area.

“That area of the city is not walkable, we have so many bicyclists die there, and its a sad situation to have that many students with that little interaction with the community,” she said.

To be walkable, city streets need to achieve a balance of “mixed use” spaces like housing, retail, business offices and recreation activities, Speck said. To have a vibrant street of restaurants and gyms, there has to be a lunchtime and nighttime crowd that is willing to populate those businesses, and has the public transportation structure to get from one walkable area to another. The Channel District is just the first step, Speck said.

“You don’t have an area like that in many cities where there’s so much going on and yet very little walking happens,” Speck said. “The foundation is there to really do something fantastic in this district.”

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