Too Tall An Order For Downtown?

For those of us who have been around a while, downtown Tampa has been for too long a plywood monument to urban abandonment. A ground-level eyesore with an office building skyline. A Potemkin embarrassment in the post Kress, Maas, Woolworth, Newberry era.

Not that there haven’t been periodic, serious efforts to get downtown off the dime. In fact, we still have a bunch of heralded revitalization plans on shelves – or in time capsules — somewhere.

But as we’re seeing, Tampa is no longer an aberration in the national trend of urban infill. Channelside is morphing in front of our eyes and downtown – finally – is on residential developers’ radar. Including the forlorn stretch that has been North Franklin Street for the last generation.

That’s why it was puzzling to see that recent vote of city council that looked askance at a rezoning request by the Doran Jason Group. The 3-3 deadlock, in effect a “no” vote with a rider to “try again,” reflected concern over height and density, notably the former.

The Coral Gables developer wants to build a 975-unit condominium complex. It plans to save the historic Kress Building as well as the facades of the Woolworth and Newberry department store buildings. The scenario calls for condo towers of 24 and 27 stories behind the facades as well as a 44-story tower on an adjacent block. Units would sell for $130,000 to $300,000.

The tie vote forces the developer, whose interest is presumably unwavering, to make revisions, at least one result of which will surely be fewer units in the most affordable range. That’s an outcome at variance with a key downtown priority.

The dissenting voters, Linda Saul-Sena, Kevin White and Rose Ferlita, come from a good place. They are not rubber stamps – and height and proportion are hardly irrelevant. And Franklin Street is not exactly Park Avenue or Michigan Avenue. But, hey, Donald Trump is here, and his riverfront tower will be taller than Doran Jason’s big unit.

But more to the point, North Franklin and the rest of downtown desperately need what Doran Jason wants to provide. AFFORDABLE housing. And a jumpstart of critical mass – with more residents than investors – helps ensure that the city’s core won’t long remain an express lane from the interstate to South Tampa.

The reality of downtown land values and the charge to keep prices reasonable puts a pragmatic onus on any developer to make the numbers work. The most practicable place to go for any major city’s downtown is – up.

Council member John Dingfelder had it about right. “Downtown is downtown. Buildings should be tall.”

In short, he’s correct. No one is asking Tampa to sell its proportional soul, just be a common-sense public partner on this one.

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