tampabay.com

To be best on block, stop trying to be big

By SANDRA THOMPSON
Published October 28, 2006


When I was in New York last week, Time Out had come out with a list of the 50 best residential blocks in the city.

"Why do I care?" you may ask. "I live in Tampa."

This is why:

Tampa continues to want to be a big city, but it still doesn't know how. And it isn't necessarily looking at doing the right things.

New York is the biggest city in the United States. It is by far the most urban city, and that is the direction in which all growing cities are headed. And what New Yorkers value are the same things people who live in younger cities will come to value as their cities grow.

Time Out used seven criteria to judge the desirability of New York City's blocks: aesthetics, amenities, the green factor, noise and traffic, public transit, affordability and something they call "New York-ocity."

Using the same criteria, let's see how we're doing here.

Aesthetics - Everything on the block should be clean and well maintained with good design in the buildings as well as an appealing symmetry to the street as a whole.

I would say we're not doing great. During the real estate boom - remember that? - we tore down old houses and replaced them with bigger new houses that are out of sync with the older houses on the block and look cramped on the too small lots. There is often a hodgepodge of architectural styles - sometimes in the same house. Townhouse designs are even worse.

Amenities - In Tampa the new supposedly urban developments have nevertheless followed a car-culture mentality. Even with considerably higher density - and the amenities that follow - it's still difficult to walk to a restaurant or dry cleaners.

Green factor - Time Out's "green factor" is defined as trees, parks and waterfront access. Here, owners and developers have actually hired chain saw-wielding thugs to work under the cover of darkness to rid their property of something urban dwellers everywhere find irresistible: trees. In any big city, if you see lots of trees, you can bet you're in a desirable neighborhood. And "waterfront access" is not the same thing as "waterfront property." It means everybody can get to the waterfront. No one owns it. We have a miserable record on this one.

Noise and traffic - On noise and traffic Tampa is better than New York - but ask anyone here if it's getting better or worse.

Public transit - We flunk.

Affordability - A few years ago I'd have said, all right, we've got New York beat. Tampa's cheap! And I guess it still is - if you don't have to pay rent or property taxes or homeowners insurance or own a car. Which I guess means you're still in middle school.

New York-ocity - This refers to an "only-in-New-York" quality. Well, of course we don't need that here, but we could use a lot more appreciation of Tampa-ocity. The cigar factories - they're Tampa.

Note to eager Tampa urbanizers: Not one of New York's 50 best is a block of high-rise residential. Many of the top 50 are in historic landmark districts. It's easy to see why: smaller buildings, bigger trees, better design.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at sthompson125@tampabay.rr.com City Life appears on Saturday.