AIA Tampa Bay Mayoral Candidate Forum 2019 Recap

Topher Morrison discusses architecture, design and historic preservation as Tampa grows.

The AIA Tampa Bay chapter hosted the mayoral candidates at their cool space in Ybor City. We were provided several questions to prepare for in advance, but each candidate was only able to address three questions at the forum, with respect to the duration of the event. I want to provide all of my answers to each question, as I know all of the questions are meaningful to some, and each candidate’s answer is of interest to at least one Tampa resident who cared enough to ask it.

Question #1: Would encouraging and prioritizing good design be a part of your administration both with city building and private sector development?

Here’s what I think good design means: Accessibility, Walkability, and Enjoyability.

Our buildings should be designed to accommodate accessibility. This includes disabled access, autonomous vehicle access, and active transportation access.

Buildings in public spaces should be designed such that they create a walkable space around the building to encourage economic development.

For enjoyability, I have a vision for the city of Tampa to become “The Rooftop City.” This means retrofitting our current buildings with rooftop experiences, and working with city council to update our code enforcement such that any new development will be required to have rooftop experiences. We have some of the most amazing views that any city can boast but unless you are privileged, you don’t have access. I believe every citizen, regardless of their station in life, should be able to enjoy these views and it would help to create a brand for our city which is something we are currently missing.

Question #2: If you value good design, would you invest in staff and work on the bureaucracy to accomplish this?

I don’t think we need to invest in more staff, I think we need to re-evaluate the organizational structure of who gets to decide what.

For example, currently engineers call the shots and urban planners & designers are on the bottom. Now I’m not knocking engineers, but they aren’t known for their artistic designs. Let’s put the urban planners in charge, and then the engineers can make it safe to build.

I’m ready to start working on the bureaucracy on day one, with city council, to update our zoning codes to those of a more progressive city that values walkability and healthy design.

A building isn’t just a structure that holds people inside; it is just as much about the people outside, looking in. Tampa deserves to be a truly special place, not just a bunch of randomly placed buildings. Great design unifies a place, and prioritizing design is the only way we can make that happen.

Architects and contractors are licensed professionals who protect the health, welfare, and safety of our cities and make them great places.

Question #3: How can you encourage development in the Tampa Bay region to utilize local architects?

I’m your small business mayor! 98% of our economy is because of small business in Tampa. So I’d much rather offer tax incentives to developers for hiring local people than offer incentives for Fortune 500 companies moving to Tampa.

We already have ordinances in place that require a certain percentage of sub-contracted work to be awarded to minorities, why don’t we get creative and do something similar for protecting our local architects?

When we support a local business, 70% of every dollar stays inside the local area but when we support companies from elsewhere, less than 30% of each dollar stays inside the local area.

This is a big deal and the more we support our local businesses, the stronger our economy will be and the better we can ensure that, when the economy shifts, and development slows down, our local architects are getting the jobs in this city. This will ensure that they stay robust and profitable.

Question #4: Do you understand the power of the Mayor to encourage the development of affordable housing throughout Tampa?

I doubt any one of us is going to openly answer “no” to that question. Being an outsider to politics gives me a unique advantage over some of my other colleagues in that I don’t think like a politician. I’m not conditioned by the system which tends to happen to career politicians and lobbyists.

I’m well aware that our city has undeveloped properties which could be put to better use and could create jobs to help our communities.

But we also need to be smarter about how we develop entire areas so that affordable housing isn’t a term used to describe city owned housing projects, but it’s a term that describes how easy it is for our fellow Tampa residents to live wherever they want because they can afford to.

Here are some examples:

Eliminating Parking minimums will reduce the cost of development and instead of passing the expenses onto the customer they can pass the savings onto the customer.
By encouraging and incentivizing for greater density, that can lead to better transit.
And means they don’t have to own a car which leads to more income for their homes. Hence making them more affordable. All of this is under the purview of the Mayor.

Question #5: What tools are you aware of that you could use, such as the Sadowski Act, to encourage redevelopment at different scales from homes to large condos?

Opportunity Zones which allows vetted investors to invest in low income areas and CRAs which allow funds to stay inside the neighborhoods. I really do believe the best people to know how to invest in their neighborhoods are the people who live in their neighborhoods.

and the Homeless program because a well run initiative to end homelessness can become an incredibly powerful economic boon. According to the Tampa Police homeless task force it costs taxpayers $40K per year per homeless person, but only $12k per year to put them in a home. It’s in our economic interest to realize that taking care of those less fortunate is far more affordable that ignoring them.

Question #6: How would you encourage Central Brightline Station’s design and the ancillary station design to help shape Tampa?

A large transit hub becomes an economic engine when you don’t need any additional form of transit to get to and from the station with regard to your work or home.

This means the higher density of population either on, in, or around the stations creates an effect I call unavoidable convenience. In other words, the use of the station is more convenient than the use of a car.

When the stations become multi modal it compounds that affect.

But there is a bigger game at play here. Currently we only have one company trying to install a transit system from Tampa to Orlando. In business we call that bad deal flow. I’m not opposed to Brightline, but I’d be much happier if we had 3 or for different deals flowing through our desks at city hall which is why I would like to see other discussions like hyperloop come into play. It’s not because I’m attached to hyperloop, it’s because I want more deal flow.

Question #7: How would you encourage the preservation and redevelopment of Tampa’s vacant and underutilized buildings such as our historic cigar factories?

I’ll try not to get too policy wonk on you here.

The Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Department is under the Planning & Development Department. The person in charge of this department is very important. I will work hand in hand with them because this is a top down issue. We need to make sure that the already existing incentives at all levels are being disseminated to the appropriate properties so they are aware of the current benefits afforded to them which most don’t even know about.

Most owners of historic buildings know there are federal grant dollars available, but the art of grant writing has a long learning curve and most people aren’t willing to put the time and effort into filing. I would like to provide these owners with a grant writing specialist to help them acquire funds at the federal level which means we can have more local dollars go to for the buildings we currently own.

I would love to convert some of our old cigar factories into a smart city accelerator that not only serve as a place for small business owners dedicated to smart city development but a mixed use facility that let’s them live onsite so whenever their inspiration hits, they are no future than a stairwell away from their tools to create.

These buildings create the historic fabric of Tampa… the architecture defines our history.

Question #8: How would you better protect and help incentivize the revitalization of Tampa’s historic neighborhoods?

I realize this might sound a bit odd at an architectural forum, but I think sometimes we miss the plot on what makes a neighborhood historic.

Yes, the buildings are a big part of that, but another equally important part is the generational families that live in those areas.

A neighborhood that preserves its historic buildings and repurposes them to such a degree that the people who have lived there for generations can’t afford to live there anymore, that neighborhood is then at risk of losing part of its magic.

My friend Lonnie Herman from Ybor City Walking Tours said it best: “If you don’t appreciate the past, you really can’t enjoy the present.” And one of the best ways to enjoy our present is to walk shoulder to shoulder with those from the past.

I think we can preserve buildings and culture. It starts with simple things like designing for walkable communities and having parks nearby for everyone to enjoy. Let’s create incentives for developers to make the places they renovate affordable for the people who were there long before the bulldozers came along.