Tampa: One of America's Most Screwed-Up Cities Is Home to the GOP Convention
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This piece originally appeared at Salon.
Poke around the White House website and you can still find the hopeful “fact sheet” for a 324-mile high-speed rail line linking Miami, Orlando and Tampa.
No such system exists, of course — it was killed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Today, there’s a 40-acre vacant lot where the Tampa terminal would have stood. And when Republicans arrive for their national convention in about a week and catch a glimpse of it, they’ll likely see a big win. In fact, the GOP will find a lot of things in Tampa that exemplify their commitment to not investing in the future.
“The trend [in Tampa] today is to say, ‘We don’t need it — no new taxes — we are not going to invest anymore,’” former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan recently told Tampa Bay Online. “And that message resonates from not only the constituents, but the leadership of the Republican Party.” You could fairly call the GOP vision for the country the Tampafication of America.
Tampa is a hot urban mess, equal parts Reagan ’80s and Paul Ryan 2010s. Urban renewal projects decimated the city in the ’60s, but its current persona was forged in earnest starting three decades ago, when finance and insurance companies started moving their back-office operations there, attracted by the sunshine and low-cost labor. The 1988 bestseller “Megatrends” declared Tampa “America’s next great city.” Real estate joined the service economy as a major economic pillar, and the city embarked on a building spree, sprouting large glass towers disconnected from the city itself, a development pattern that offered little incentive to invest in things like parks, transit or walkable spaces.
This left little of the quality urbanism people now pay a premium for. And while other cities made similar mistakes, Tampa has been slow to correct theirs, stymied by tight-fisted Tea Party politics. “We look at Dallas or Houston, with all the same challenges we have; they’ve managed to start changing their patterns of development and attract the creative-class younger folks who are looking for alternatives to the suburban lifestyle,” says Steve Schukraft, the Tampa Bay area’s representative to the Congress for the New Urbanism. When you’re wistfully pining for Houston’s urban virtues, things are not going well.
But that’s where Tampa finds itself. Even Houston, like other Sun Belt cities, has been working to rectify its mistakes, constructing successful light-rail lines and some lively mixed-use neighborhoods. Meanwhile, in 2010, voters in Tampa’s Hillsborough County rejected a one-cent sales tax that would have funded a new light-rail system. (That same year, the Tampa Bay area saw the nation’s largest increase in traffic congestion.) Fifty percent of the urban core is now set aside for parking, says Shannon Bassett, assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of South Florida.
These choices have left their mark. In 2010, Forbes ranked Tampa dead last out of 60 metro areas for commuting. Transportation for America declared it the second-most-dangerous city for pedestrians. And a 2007 survey of 30 metropolitan areas found exactly one with no walkable destinations: Tampa, Fla. “Tampa is not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn recently admitted.
Bassett is working to “de-engineer” the city from this current state. “How do you address the lack of pedestrianism, the lack of civic space, the lack of shade, which is crucial for Florida urbanism?” she asks. “There’s some bike paths now, and landscaping, but to me it’s not integrative. I think it needs a larger rethinking of its infrastructure. It’s operating in more of an ’80s mentality.”