Commentary: Running the risk of limiting our spaces

Editor’s note: One year after COVID-19 was first documented in Florida, we all know the stories of deaths, illness, pain, isolation, and suffering, but we don't always take the time to think about how the pandemic has forever changed us in ways that may become or ought to become permanent as a result. So 83 Degrees asked local thought leaders to consider what's different now compared to pre-COVID in terms of lessons learned, reimagined goals, and vision that have the potential to make a difference for good. We’re thinking of these things as inspiration, encouragement, and potential solutions -- all duplicable by and for others. Below is one response.
My family has been in Tampa since 1989. It gave me so much pride when I could take my wife and daughter to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park on a sunny winter day to take a picture with the Super Bowl trophy. That we were wearing masks was somehow the most unbelievable part of the day.

I have a hard time reading commentary trying to memorialize what the last year living in a pandemic means or the gallows humor we turn to in the face of 510,000+ COVID deaths nationwide and a national reckoning of centuries of racial inequality. When you are living history, it is hard to have someone else tell you what it means. However, wearing masks and social distancing at the Michael Maurino, Director of Transportation and Planning for the Westshore AllianceSuper Bowl Experience made me think of how we need a better appreciation of the spaces, six feet apart or more, we all need to be successful. Right now, without a smarter growth policy as a community, we run the risk of limiting our spaces. 

The definition of smart growth is, “an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement.” 

The good news is that we as a community are united on three critical issues necessary for smart growth policies. In 2021, we can work together to tackle another issue: housing. 

Seeking solutions together

The business community and residents have already come together to solve some of our shared problems and can do so again. 

On the issues of equality, education, and infrastructure, there is agreement between families and business leaders. First was the effort in 2017 to remove the Confederate monument in Downtown Tampa. In 2018, Hillsborough voters passed sales tax referendums for transportation infrastructure and schools that were supported by major business groups and residents. Businesses worked towards equality and inclusivity as public support grew for social justice movements in 2020. In each circumstance, initiatives popular with residents were supported by Tampa Bay business leaders, and vice versa. 

We still have a considerable difference on the question of residential growth. There are thousands of people moving to the Tampa Bay Area when it already seems too crowded. How do we grow when we have to worry about sea-level rise, losing industrial and agricultural spaces, and urban neighborhoods and rural outposts bypassed by progress? How do we manage the space we have and the space we cannot lose?

The market says we need more housing at every level. We must find an answer for the “missing middle” of homes. Many families are a down payment away from buying their own home but keep renting. Leverage public-private partnerships to build housing that is accessible to a first-time homebuyer on underutilized or unused public property. Every time you drive past a government-posted “No Trespassing” sign, think about if that property would be better off as duplexes or homes that fit within the neighborhood’s development pattern. In a community with a need for more housing, every bit of better-utilized space helps.

Finding the right mix 

Changing our mindset to allow for more development of all forms of housing also means better suburban developments. We should require developers to preserve space for future commercial or industrial development. This should happen only where it makes sense, especially with so much of retail moving online. Too many suburban communities were designed for cars, not people. We need wider sidewalks more than we need wider roads. Families should not have to drive to go to their neighborhood park or risk their kids’ lives walking to school. Realigning suburban communities also creates more space for different housing types. 

We still have a need for interstates and expressways for commuters, especially with our major job centers surrounded by expensive residential real estate. We need better transit and regional rail, but it will be more successful if we retrofit our older suburban communities for walkability and continue the mixed-use approach of communities like Westchase and Winthrop. We need to continue making the case that better transportation options, for all users in all neighborhoods, can reduce transportation costs, support economic development, and improve our quality of life.

Everyone wants to have some space to themselves, from a nice suburban backyard to a nice downtown balcony. We must be smarter about growth because people and businesses are coming. We are a powerful region in the third-largest state. We have the capabilities to solve these problems. In a year in which the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, anything is possible. Just as we have done on other major issues, residents and the business community can set us on a path to solve our housing issues in 2021. We can work together to give everyone the space they need to be successful.

Michael Maurino is the Director of Transportation and Planning for the Westshore Alliance. He serves on the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. Michael, his wife, daughter, and Chihuahua live in Port Tampa City.
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