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Tampa's codes throttle progress
A Times Editorial
Published September 24, 2007
The softening of the housing market forces cities to be aggressive in building their tax bases through commercial investment. Yet city codes in Tampa undermine that effort by overly restricting development. Some of Tampa's oldest neighborhoods, such as Seminole Heights, underwent a face lift during the recent housing boom, as owners renovated block after block of traditional homes. Yet these same neighborhoods lack many of the basics that once made them self-sustaining, such as restaurants and retail shops, because city codes don't accommodate the unique challenges of rebuilding older, urban settings.
Urban areas, unlike the suburbs, are not a blank canvas. Developers looking to turn homes or factories into other uses or to locate a business in a neighborhood are limited by man-made and natural features, such as existing homes, roads, utilities and other public works. Land typically is more expensive and difficult to assemble. That is why development standards appropriate for the suburbs may not fit the urban core. A dry cleaner on a residential block cannot be expected to provide the same parking as one in a strip mall. Urban neighborhoods in Tampa and elsewhere were designed before the car, and the geography forces the city to balance development standards with practicality and convenience.
The fact that it took months in Seminole Heights to open a coffee shop and allow parking for a pizzeria shows how lacking the city's development posture is in the very areas gentrification has primed for commercial development. Residents flocked to the city and rebuilt homes because they wanted an urban experience. A new approach the city is examining, called form-based zoning, is a step in the right direction, for it would look beyond the elements of a project to the impact it would have on the neighborhood.
Flexibility is about more than reacting to a slowing residential property market. These residents are already there - in Seminole Heights, Tampa Heights and other neighborhoods near downtown. Serving them is an opportunity to grow and diversify Tampa's economy. The city can maintain strong development standards by making smarter use of its regulatory power. That begins by remembering that people and commerce together make cities work.