Oh, baseball and the Gateway! The Atlanta Braves’ spring training facility proposed for the Pinellas Gateway area’s former landfill site, known as Toytown, made for good headlines and social media commentary this past week. The Gateway is the first place people reach when they cross into Pinellas County from Tampa on the Howard Frankland Bridge, and for the last several years has been seen by many as a potential spot for the Tampa Bay Rays to build a new stadium.
What to do with the closed Toytown landfill site has long been a point of discussion. The 240-acre reclaimed site is part of a 30 square mile automobile-oriented employment district that enjoys excellent regional access by interstate and principal highways, making it convenient to downtown St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and the beaches. When the new Gateway Express toll road opens in a few years, it will provide a direct and faster connection with North Pinellas and Pasco County via US 19.
But the Gateway has its challenges, too. The multimodal transportation network is very limited, and housing and commercial areas are far apart, separated by wide barriers of fast traffic. It’s the kind of place where, if you live there and want to ride your bike, you have to first put it on the back of your car. Segregated by public facilities, buffered office campuses, canals and freight-oriented industrial uses, the Gateway is a disparate, disconnected and largely disinvested part of the Pinellas urban landscape. Fragmented planning among four local government jurisdictions hinders the area’s orderly growth and eventual transformation.
The Pinellas Planning Council and Metropolitan Planning Council (PPC/MPO) recognized the importance of coordinated planning for better Gateway connectivity during its governing board workshop on September 21st, making it one of three emphasis areas for 2016-2017. The board also defined priority emphasis areas for the US 19 corridor and a plan for enhancing beach access. Like the other areas, the Gateway emphasis means the PPC/MPO will begin working with state, regional and local partners to prepare a strategic plan and undertake a focused communications and educational program to improve understanding of potential solutions and take specific actions that will help unify, organize and enable economically competitive and sustainable growth in the area. The goal for each of the three emphasis areas is to build consensus for fresh ideas and potential actions that respect our values and reinforce Pinellas County’s economic vitality, enable quality redevelopment and strengthen multimodal accessibility.
The Toytown proposals and other trends highlight the importance of having a vision and a strategy for how the Gateway area will continue to grow and sustain its role as a regional economic engine and destination. For now, it is pass-through land, with big parking lots and wide travel lanes for those who arrive each morning, perhaps drive somewhere for a quick lunch, and depart each evening. With each new development proposal, more and more parking is planned to accommodate driving, to the tune of six spaces for every 1000 square feet in a planned “city center.”
For the future of Pinellas County, it has to become much more. It has to become a place. Actually, its size means fostering a series of places that, along with multimodal improvements, increases accessibility throughout the Gateway and between it and other primary places throughout Tampa Bay (creating connected mixed use districts of varying scale, in planner-speak). Given the stated preferences and growing trends of older Americans and the millennials, we need to ensure that future Gateway development is more walkable, accessible by transit and offers a mix of uses that contribute to a positive sense of place. Its economic success depends on it becoming a hub for truly regional transit that connects communities on both sides of the bay.
The new Countywide Land Use Plan enables significant increases in development density in the Gateway. It provides the guidelines for mixed-use, transit oriented development. But achieving that plan and those of local governments will take effective, lasting partnerships with each agency having responsibilities in the Gateway, side by side with the business community and established residential areas that dot the district.
A committed partnership for the Gateway is essential to its success. Major employers and landowners have a strong say in the usefulness of any plan or planning process. The Florida Department of Transportation needs to protect the substantial investments it has made and continues to make in the Gateway. Pinellas County is beginning an effort to study its public facilities and infrastructure to support economic development in the Gateway. Local governments serve as the point of entry for development proposals, and visionary, well coordinated plans can clearly demonstrate how the area will guide future development and provide a predictable and streamlined path for the development community that helps to achieve the vision outcomes.
That kind of integrated planning is critical for growing and redeveloping communities throughout Pinellas and the Tampa Bay region. It is even more necessary in a place as loosely organized and unevenly developing as the Gateway. Stay tuned as this collaborative effort evolves.