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Bay area sprawls along without a center

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002

I recently hopped a plane to Raleigh, N.C., then drove west a short distance along I-40 past now-legendary Research Triangle Park. It was a Saturday afternoon, and in the 20-minute trip traffic was steady but hardly thick.

I recently hopped a plane to Raleigh, N.C., then drove west a short distance along I-40 past now-legendary Research Triangle Park. It was a Saturday afternoon, and in the 20-minute trip traffic was steady but hardly thick.

I was lucky. Local Raleigh journalist Mandy Jones says the same simple drive during commuting hours easily could take 90 aggravating, stop-and-go minutes or more.

Forewarned, I was still surprised that a new analysis shows modest-sized Raleigh-Durham ranks third for sprawl among major metropolitan areas in the country. Hard to believe, but Raleigh even tops much bigger Atlanta, which ranks fourth. The most sprawling metro area nationwide is California's Riverside-San Bernardino area outside Los Angeles. At No. 2, surprisingly, is another North Carolina metro area: Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point.

The sprawl index, which ranks 83 major metro areas, appears in a report called Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact that grew out of a three-year research project conducted by professors Reid Ewing at Rutgers University and Rolf Pendall at Cornell University. It was sponsored by Smart Growth America, a national coalition whose many members include a group called 1000 Friends of Florida. The coalition promotes efficient growth management, improvements to existing urban space and transportation choices.

Which brings us to our own turf. While the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area sure won't win any urban efficiency awards, it's not among the nation's worst. The Tampa Bay area ranks 22nd for sprawl among the 83 metro areas (a ranking of No. 1 is worst sprawl, No. 83 is least).

There's more here than meets the eye. The Tampa Bay area would rank better for sprawl but was dragged down by one key factor. The researchers vaguely call it "centeredness." What it really means is that the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater area scores poorly because it generally lacks identifiable, concentrated business districts, and urban downtowns full of people after the workday is done.

I know what some of you are thinking: nonsense! We live in a tri-city area so our urban centers are spread out. St. Petersburg's downtown is positively hopping and expanding. Tampa's downtown after 5 p.m. is trying to return from the dead with valiant CPR. And Clearwater is attempting its own version of revitalization.

No matter. On the issue of "centeredness," the sprawl researchers rank the Tampa Bay area at an appalling No. 3. Only northern California's Vallejo-Fairfield-Napa area ranks worse on "centeredness" at No. 1, followed at No. 2 by Riverside-San Bernardino (which ranks worst for overall sprawl).

What does Tampa Bay share in common with these areas? They all have few locations that serve as town centers or focal points for the overall metropolitan community. For example, more than 75 percent of the Tampa Bay population lives more than 10 miles from one of its central business districts, the sprawl researchers found.

In other words, the researchers claim the Tampa Bay area, in comparison with most other metro areas, lacks a "sense of place."

"There's no there there," Smart Growth America spokeswoman Barbara McCann tries to explain.

You know what she's saying. Suburban Los Angeles or Tampa Bay: vast parts of each are little more than endless and repetitious strip shopping centers, fast food chains, aging cinder block homes or identically styled new homes.

If I was plunked down randomly on U.S. 19, I'd be hard pressed to tell if I was in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Clearwater or Port Richey. Drop me east of I-75 on Bruce B. Downs Blvd. -- ground zero for New Tampa's endless new-housing communities -- and I could stay lost forever.

The West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach area fared poorly, too. It ranks No. 4 for its lack of "centeredness."

Tampa Bay area leaders are trying to build urban anchors. St. Petersburg's been most successful lately, with its enlivened downtown and waterfront. Tampa's downtown leadership is on the right track -- still searching for ways to get people to actually live near where they work -- but progress is slow.

Sprawl researchers say 88 percent of the people who live in the greater Tampa Bay metro area do not relate to Tampa or St. Petersburg or Clearwater as their urban center. It's just as likely to be Pinellas Park or Brandon or Lutz.

We've seen sprawl rankings before. USA Today did its own national analysis of 271 cities last year and, of all places, dubbed Ocala the "sprawling-est" city in America.

This new report, unveiled this month, is more comprehensive. It used 22 variables to rate metro areas on four different aspects of their development. It tried to measure how badly each region sprawls in terms of spreading out housing and population, how segregated homes are from the activities of daily life, how much does each area lack a central economic and social center, and how poorly connected are the streets.

Tampa Bay's overall rank of 22 puts it in close company for sprawl with such places as Oklahoma City (No. 21) and Birmingham, Ala. (No. 23). But we're much better off than the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach metro area on Florida's east cost, which was tops in the state for overall sprawl at No. 6. Ranking ahead of the Tampa Bay area are Jacksonville at No. 28, Orlando at No. 40, and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood-Pompano Beach at No. 55.

The least sprawling (or most compact) metro area in Florida, the study says, is Miami-Hialeah at an impressive No. 76. That means only seven of the 83 metro areas measured by this analysis could boast less sprawl than Miami. (Least sprawling at No. 83 is densely packed New York City.)

So here's Smart Growth America's pitch. "People living in more sprawling regions tend to drive greater distances, own more cars, breathe more polluted air, face a greater risk of traffic fatalities and walk and use transit less," the coalition says.

The group's recommendations may seem obvious. But given our local ranking and fast population growth, let's review. Reinvest in neglected communities. Provide more housing opportunities. Encourage development in already built-up areas. Create and support thriving, mixed-use centers of activity. Support growth management strategies, including transportation options.

There's one more crucial recommendation for the Tampa Bay area. Make our urban downtowns more vital to visit and even live in. Let's build a there here.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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