Improving transportation in the Bay Area always seems to be a hot topic – and that was no exception Wednesday at Urban Land Institute Tampa Bay’s annual Trends in Real Estate Conference in Tampa Heights.
Three major investors with a huge stake in the region’s future shared some insights during a panel discussion.
They included Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the brains behind a major redevelopment of downtown Tampa; Tom James, former chairman of Raymond James Financial and founder of the forthcoming James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg; and health care entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr. Kiran Patel.
The Tampa Bay area is seeing some of the nation's biggest gains in new residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and its recent job growth earned it the No. 15 spot on the Milken Institute’s “Best-Performing Cities” list for 2017. Jeff Vinik says that combination is driving the area to be “on fire” from a development point of view.
“Ten years from now there’s going to be 25 percent more people here than there are right now,” Vinik said. “25 percent more demand for apartments, for hockey tickets, [for space] on the road, etc. We have to plan ahead and think about that. That’s what this [ULI conference] is all about. This is about development and planning ahead for the great potential that we have.”
But the panelists agreed that one hurdle the area faces as it strives to compete with other major cities is its transportation system. Vinik says improving mobility is critical.
"We have a love affair with the car here – that’s fine,” he said. “This isn't about getting rid of cars, this is about giving people alternatives. And in Hillsborough County, more so than in Pinellas, but in Hillsborough our bus system is frankly one of the worst in the country, which really cuts down on economic opportunity for people.”
A study funded by the Florida Department of Transportation finds a regional bus rapid transit system (BRT) would be the area's best option for mass transit as opposed to light rail. Vinik, who has supported light rail in the past, says using buses could provide more flexibility to adapt with changing technology.
“To put in rail right, now which costs billions of dollars, there is a risk involved that that [the system] is somewhat obsolete in 20 or 30 or 40 years,” he said.
The desire for flexibility is also inspiring Vinik’s plans for building parking garages – which he refers to as “a necessary evil” – in Water Street Tampa. Strategic Property Partners, the group overseeing the downtown development, will construct over $100 million of parking garages over the next three years. But their design won’t limit them to one purpose.
“We’re actually spending a 20 percent premium to have them [the garages] not slope as much, to have higher heights from the floor to the ceiling so they can be converted into other uses,” Vinik said.
Vinik is already noticing a decrease in cars around his downtown properties, like the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
“For an average event we would hold there, we would get on average 350 cars a year ago,” he said. “Now we get 250. 100 families or individuals are actually taking alternative means like ridesharing to get to-and-from. So it’s really about flexibility.”
Tom James, whose name sits atop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium, says he notices similar trends at sporting events. Both he and Vinik are members of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of business executives working to address the region’s economic challenges which include transportation.
James agrees that people in Tampa Bay need better ways to get around, particularly those who frequently travel over the bridges connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which are often the settings for traffic nightmares. He says the proposal for bus rapid transit is a good start.
“It’s important for us to utilize buses in conjunction with some other more rapid forms of transportation in the community, much less connecting us to Orlando and Miami and Jacksonville,” James said. “So that’s where I would invest my money first, but we have to convince our own public in this community how important this is to the vibrancy of the area and how they will benefit from these investments. We didn’t do a very good job of that with our votes in both counties.”
A reference to past efforts in both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties to slightly increase the sales tax in order to fund mass transit projects. Voters rejected the “Greenlight Pinellas” transit referendum in 2014, and the Hillsborough County Commission refused to put the similar “Go Hillsborough” proposal on the ballot in 2016.