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Smart developers add a pinch of public space

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By DIANE STEINLE Published July 10, 2005 Developers who want early enthusiastic government acceptance of their projects are learning to whisper, “Psssst! We’re including public space in our project.” Viola! It is so much easier to build a project when you have officialdom salivating over your plan. Some of the most visible private projects in North Pinellas have won official buy-in in part by including public spaces. For example, last week the Oldsmar City Council enthusiastically endorsed a development proposal from JES Properties, a company owned by a Clearwater surgeon, to build a town center consisting of housing, offices and stores on State Street. Oldsmar had sought a developer to partner with it on such a project on a vacant block downtown. Two developers were in the running. The other developer had more experience and gave a better presentation than JES. But JES won the council’s support. What did city officials say gave JES’ design the edge? The inclusion of a large, picturesque outdoor plaza where public events could be held. The important corner of Main Street and Bayshore Boulevard in downtown Safety Harbor sat empty for years. One proposal after another fell by the wayside. However, city officials really perked up when a development group proposed a project with condominiums, offices, restaurants – and a first-floor public plaza. Opus South wants to build condos and shops on Clearwater’s high downtown bluff, including a portion of the land on which Clearwater City Hall now sits. Clearwater residents, who would have to approve the sale of the City Hall land, are notoriously picky about what they will accept on that unique geography, and city officials have learned not to predict what residents will find acceptable. But Opus South got city officials on board right away, in part because the developer included in its drawings a wide public plaza through which walkers could stroll from the street to a boardwalk-style promenade atop the bluff. Opus’ plan doesn’t just dangle an economic development boost for downtown; it provides public access to the waterfront. St. Petersburg Times writer Mark Albright reported this month on the trend of packaging first-floor retail with private condo projects. In fact, it is hard to find a big condo project proposed in a downtown in Tampa Bay that doesn’t include a retail or restaurant component. While ground-floor retail is an attractive amenity to the people who will live above it, it also is an attraction to people who don’t live there. It is a variation on the “public spaces” theme. Of course, mixing public and private space at one property presents some potential challenges. Condo residents or office workers eventually may tire of having the public wandering around the place. And what happens if a developer wins government approval for his project by building public space, but later sells the land to another entity that doesn’t want to keep it public? Governments will need mechanisms to ensure that public space remains a component of the project. The inclusion of public spaces in private projects is a development worth celebrating. As Pinellas gets more crowded, there will be fewer open areas outdoors where people can congregate. Governments recognize that looming problem and are responding with plans for public spaces big and small. Clearwater’s planned Beach Walk along the Gulf of Mexico promises to be one outstanding example of the “big”; more pocket parks and dressed-up alleys are the “small.” Governments’ financial resources for such projects are limited. Future residents will have many more such spaces to enjoy if private developers recognize they can contribute to Pinellas County’s quality of life by making their own contributions of public space. Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at Source:
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