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Don't let 'Wow' factor overcome cautious look

A Times Editorial
Published September 14, 2007


Where the old Bay Area Outlet Mall and its successor, Crossroads Mall, once stood at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Roosevelt Boulevard in Largo, passers-by have become accustomed to seeing only dirt piles, weeds and a dilapidated sign announcing a mall that no longer exists. Some people might have assumed the plans for the much-ballyhooed Largo Towne Center had been ditched.

The plans were delayed, but they are not dead, as Largo city commissioners saw at a recent meeting. The developer prepared a video virtual tour of the planned project that left a sparkle in the eyes of city officials who have tried so hard to make their rather sad downtown a destination and their troubled Clearwater-Largo Road corridor thrive.

"That is what we would call, 'Wow!'"said Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier after viewing the video.

Largo Towne Center will have retail shops, offices, parking structures and, on the east side, 257 rental apartments. In the center of the pedestrian-friendly complex will be a paved amphitheater where the city can hold public events.

(To watch the virtual tour, go to http://209.43.125.200/egov/docs/1188945080231.htm and click on staff report item 31.)

Commissioners could clearly see that Largo Towne Center will be a great amenity for Largo residents and a shopping and event destination for others who don't live in the city.

However, city officials need to rein in their excitement as they begin considering the proposed development agreement with Boulder Venture South LLC next month. A development agreement describes everything a local government and a developer owe to and require of each other. The process has opportunities and potential pitfalls. If Largo commissioners are too eager or rush to reach agreement, they can overlook needed items or miss the chance to demand more of the developer.

For example, city officials had hoped that the Towne Center project would include some affordable apartments for those who cannot pay market rents. Providing more affordable housing is a high priority of city government. However, commissioners were told at their recent meeting that Boulder Venture has not included any affordable units in the plan.

Commissioners could shrug and say, "Oh, okay." Or they could use Boulder Venture's request for some "flexibility" regarding signage in the project to leverage some affordable apartment units. The development agreement process allows for such negotiation.

The city also should take special care in turning over the design and construction of the project's drainage system to the developer, as has been proposed. There are many commercial and residential projects in Pinellas that have been built with a developer-designed drainage system that turned out to be inadequate or created problems for surrounding properties. Boulder Venture's property is big - 40 acres - with a lot of pavement and the area is relatively low.

There are homes and other businesses nearby that could be impacted by stormwater runoff from the Towne Center. If officials allow the developer to design the drainage system, the city should have the plans reviewed by engineers expert in the design and construction of large drainage systems.

Many a city that has negotiated and signed off on a development agreement could tell Largo commissioners stories about what they wish they had done differently. Signage that is obtrusive, traffic patterns that don't work, and stormwater flowing through nearby neighborhoods are just a few of the problems that can arise unless officials work with great care before signing off on a new project, even one as exciting as the Largo Towne Center.