November 29, 2011

Tampa hires firm to help create master plan for downtown, surrounding neighborhoods

By Richard Danielson, Times Staff Writer

The city is hiring a consulting firm to pull together a downtown and neighborhood development plan.

TAMPA - City Hall is hiring a Fortune 500 consulting firm to help write a master plan for downtown Tampa and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Officials on Tuesday said they had chosen AECOM, which is based in Los Angeles and has 45,000 employees and $8 billion in annual revenues, to work with the city on the project.

"What I hope comes out of it is the master plan, the blueprint for the next 20 years of downtown urban development," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It will be the plan that we've always talked about but never had."

With clients in 125 countries, AECOM brings worldwide experience, Buckhorn said. The company's business includes providing technical and support services to clients in areas as wide-ranging as transportation, environmental issues, energy, water and government.

The project's budget is $1.43 million - a $1.18 million federal grant, plus a $125,000 city match and $125,000 in in-kind support.

As a candidate for mayor, Buckhorn promised to start work on such a project during his first year in office.

Last year, the city won a $1.18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a corridor study along Nebraska Avenue in anticipation of high-speed rail coming to Tampa.

After Gov. Rick Scott killed the high-speed rail project, the city asked for and received HUD's permission to expand the study to include the area up to 2 miles from downtown.

AECOM was one of 10 companies to bid on the project. Officials say they'll begin negotiating a contract with the company and expect to launch the project next year. It is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

When finished, the plan is meant to cover the design guidelines, amenities and connections between downtown and areas like Ybor City, the Channel District, Tampa Heights and North Hyde Park.

It "will lay out the guidelines, dictate development patterns and create the vision for what downtown Tampa and surrounding neighborhoods could be," Buckhorn said.

Along the way, the effort is expected to build on a recent report from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C.

In October, a team from the institute spent a week interviewing local officials, developers, merchants, lawyers and residents about Tampa's potential for growth and its challenges.

Among other things, the institute recommended that Tampa:

. Steer new housing toward three areas: Tampa Heights, the area around the Marion Street Transit Station and a redevelopment of the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex.

. Re-engineer roads like Ashley Drive to be less daunting to pedestrians, with fewer lanes, more trees and lower speed limits.

. Increase on-street parking, but ban new private parking lots and parking lots on street corners.

. Improve transit, maybe by extending the TECO trolley up to Tampa Heights and west of the Hillsborough River, maybe by creating a fare-free zone to make riding the bus more attractive.

The Urban Land Institute also recommended that the city finish the Riverwalk.

To do that, the city has applied for a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Buckhorn is scheduled to meet with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Washington, D.C., on Monday to discuss the city's application.

The city could hear about the grant by mid January.

If Tampa wins the grant, it would have to provide a $2 million match, but Buckhorn said that money would finish the Riverwalk north to Tampa Heights.

And the Riverwalk is the kind of attractive link between downtown and its neighborhoods that the city's proposed master plan is meant to encourage. But the mayor said writing that plan will take more than having AECOM weigh in on the city's future.

"It's going to be based on a lot of community input, a lot of grass roots meetings where neighborhoods take ownership of their own destiny," Buckhorn said. "We've all got to work together. Downtown is the hub and the neighborhoods are the spokes."

Richard Danielson can be reached at or (813) 226-3403.

All rights reserved.
St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg Times logos are registered trademarks of St. Petersburg Times