Tampa City Council’s Zero-Sum Facade

In his recent address to the Downtown Development Forum, former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy extolled the merits of municipalities thinking outside the governmental box. The erstwhile three-term mayor likened it to being “public entrepreneurs.” In other words, cities have to conceptualize, envision and ultimately act like the private sector.

If you haven’t seen Pittsburgh since it was the quintessential steel – and soot – city, you haven’t seen Pittsburgh in more than a generation. It literally cleaned up its act, reversed its Rust Belt image and revitalized its downtown. Even includes a Rafael Vinoly-designed building, a convention center, that got built – and applauded.

How ironic, then, that this well-received, “public entrepreneurs” message was delivered the day after Tampa’s city council nixed a compromise that would have kept on track the Doran Jason Group’s plan to build a total of 975 condominium units downtown. The vote was 6-1 in favor of maintaining the historic designation on the facades of the J.J. Newberry and F.W. Woolworth dime-store buildings. It was, at least for now, a deal-breaker.

Some context.

It’s no state secret that Tampa has long needed a catalytic, critical mass of people living in its downtown. It’s beginning to happen as the new urbanism finally finds Tampa. Foremost priority is affordable housing. As in workforce. Not see-through condo units owned by speculators and not just accommodations for the toney Trump Tower set.

But Tampa’s evanescent history can’t be, of course, the price paid for its downtown revitalization. But that’s not the issue. It was only made to seem the issue at the city council vote. As if this were a zero-sum game. As in, history: Are you in favor of it or not? It’s the sort of argumentation that keeps giving sophistry such a bad name.

What it came down to was this. It’s not in DJG’s enlightened self interest to ransack the vestiges of a downtown’s history. Marketing 101, PR 102 and all that. The developer didn’t want the historic designation because it meant being saddled with the Byzantine, picky process that is the modus operandi of the Architectural Review Commission. DJG was willing to preserve the facades – all that remains of the stores — in question and, in a compromise reached with Mayor Pam Iorio, abide by zoning documents and periodic review by city staff. Hardly the approach of history-snubbing, pave-over-paradise philistines.

City council thought otherwise. Basically, if something were historic – but not, of course, a cigar factory — it needed to be so designated. “They should be authentic, not Disney World,” zero-summed up council member Linda Saul-Sena.

Disingenuous developer?

“Our code has a historic preservation process, and I think it’s ‘sound,'” stated city council member John Dingfelder. “The wiggle room should happen at the ARC. If that is not the case, then we need to change the process within the ARC. Our process does not differentiate between downtown or elsewhere

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