Tampa Downtown Partnership Mayoral Candidate Forum 2019

Topher Morrison speaking at the Tampa Downtown Partnership Mayoral Candidate Forum

The Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted a Mayoral Forum at the beautiful, historic Rialto Theatre on Wednesday, January 16, 2019. We were given a list of 10 questions, and I would like to share my answers to each of the questions, as they pertain to Tampa’s downtown core.

A little background on me: three years ago I was so inspired by Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s mission to revitalize the downtown core, that I moved downtown to support him. I didn’t just move my home, I moved my office. I am the only candidate who can say that I quite literally, live, work, and play in downtown Tampa. I’ve been a member of the Tampa Downtown Partnership and I’ve served on the growth and commerce committee. I know first-hand the needs of this downtown core, because I live it every single day.

TOPIC #1: Transit, Safety, Mobility in Downtown

  • Background: The Tampa Downtown Partnership recognizes the need for multi-modal solutions to transportation and supports many efforts in the urban core such as the Downtowner, Streetcar enhancements, Brightline initiatives, separated bike lanes, and pedestrian enhancements.
  • Questions:
    • Now that the “All for Transportation” referendum passed, what transportation initiatives would you implement using this funding in the short-term and long-term?
    • What is the City’s role in ensuring the safety of said travel and progression for future projects?

I have a very clear set of values on transit which follows the Vision Zero standards. Feet before Bikes, Bikes before Transit, Transit before Cars. So, my short-term initiatives will be dedicated to creating complete streets that connect schools to major thoroughfares. Roads like Elrod Ave. connecting Dale Mabry to Robinson high school are daily casualties waiting to happen. TWO of my staff were hit by cars on that road when they went to school at Robinson, and I can only imagine how many more kids have been struck without it being reported. Once we’ve given the kids safe passage, we will move to surrounding streets connecting the schools to ensure that they are complete as well.

Colleges & Universities that do not have protected bike lanes will be next on the agenda. Our newest generations, in general, don’t want to own cars and resent inheriting their grandparents transportation systems. We need to make it easy for them to get to surrounding areas like retail, and potential locations for internships, so they can get to and from the university safely. And bike paths that simply rely on paint to separate a bike from a 4,000 lb. car are ineffective and dangerous.

For transit, we need to ramp up our ridership by improving frequency and quantity of routes. The TECO streetcar has increased ridership by 300% since it became free to ride. Just imagine what would happen if we were to offer a similar service to our bus lines? I realize this would be an added expense, but we need to explore where the savings would increase to offset the expense by way of less cars on the road. Less cars would result in reduced traffic congestion, which would eliminate the need to add costly additional lanes that, in actuality, increase congestion rather than reduce it.

For roads, I want to take each dollar allocated and stretch it to $2.6 dollars. We can do this by acquiring MacRebur road technology. Founded in Scotland, this technology takes waste plastics from our oceans and turns them into roads. They look and feel like a traditional asphalt road, but cost 50% less to build and last 60% longer.

TOPIC #2: Parking in Downtown

  • Background: Downtown’s first-ever comprehensive parking plan will be finalized in January, which will provide valuable information for the mobility needs of the urban core.
  • Question: What new incentives do you plan to put in place to help improve the parking needs of our downtown?

According to Don Shoup, author of the High Cost of Free Parking we average seven parking spaces for every car in America. When people complain about not having enough parking they actually mean that we don’t have enough free parking. But there’s a deeper symptom at play here. When the need for parking spaces is so demanding, it’s a sign that we haven’t designed a walkable city. So people just feel the need to drive from space to space. I know of people who live in the Element and Skypoint downtown and drive their cars to Bank of America and Wells Fargo downtown. Why would they do that? Because a poorly designed city can make a five-minute walk feel like a 20-minute walk; but a well designed city can make a 20-minute walk feel like a five-minute walk.

This is one of those odd situations where the solution is counter-intuitive. The way to solve our parking problem is to remove the minimum parking requirements from code enforcement. Parking minimums are not based in any sort of science whatsoever. They are best guest scenarios, designed to provide enough parking for the 2% of the the day when demand is at its highest. By removing minimum parking, businesses can be placed closer together, making it easier to walk from building to building. This, combined with placemaking projects that make the walks more enjoyable, encourage people to walk more instead of drive from place to place. When we implement this plan, fewer people drive, and the ones who insist on driving have more spaces available to them.

We also need to seriously upgrade our Park Mobile system. The technology is outdated, and doesn’t produce the results we wanted. The newer systems create parking rates based on supply and demand. The science is to end-up pricing the spaces in such a way where there is always a 20% vacancy. This means you are never more than one block away from a parking space, drastically eliminating the need to drive around looking for parking, which, according to Shoup, can equate to upwards of 30% of the congestion in a downtown core. With market-based parking pricing, we make more money for the city, reduce congestion, and assist in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by excessive traffic.

TOPIC #3: Placemaking and Public Spaces

  • Background: The Tampa Downtown Partnership has been intimately involved in activating Downtown’s public spaces. More notably, we’ve had great success with weekly, monthly, and annual programs at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
  • Question: Tell us about your vision for identifying and creating new public spaces and how you would implement and activate current public spaces in Downtown for public use.

Bob Buckhorn has done a wonderful promoting the foodie culture with events like Food Truck Fiestas, and the Mayor’s Mac & Cheese Throwdown. These work because they reflect one of his passions. I have 3 passions: small business growth, pets and urban development. What Bob has done for the foodie culture, I’m going to do for the pet lovers of Tampa. This means more public events to help find homes for abandoned pets and have pet lovers come together to meet their neighbors. To help promote small business, combined with my love of urban development, I will be creating small business parklets where businesses can lease parking spaces in downtown for a day to promote their companies and encourage a walkability throughout our city. If you’re not familiar with a parklet, just google image the word and you’ll see thousands of creative ways cities have transformed their streets into livable, lovable spaces.

I’m excited that we are creating more curb extension to make it safer to cross roads. I’m disheartened that we simply made them out of concrete, which doesn’t help our city become a green-friendly space. However, some of these extensions could be the perfect place for a collaboration with local artists to create artistic sculptures that also serve as rainwater retention aids.

Green space making is my thing. It makes our city more beautiful, reduces temperature and greenhouse gasses, and makes our city more enjoyable for walking. Just like we’ve discovered roads can have more purpose than just moving cars, sidewalks can have more purpose that people walking.

TOPIC #4: Importance of Downtowns

  • Background: A strong downtown is critical for a successful city and region. Downtowns and center cities are where people, capital, and ideas coalesce due to size, proximity and density.
  • Question: As Mayor, how does your strategic plan enhance Tampa’s Downtown to continue its growth as a live, work, play environment? What role will the Partnership play in your plan?

I will work hand-in-hand with Tampa Downtown Partnership to create a vibrant retail segment to support our fast-growing downtown resident population. Downtown isn’t just a business district, it’s also a neighborhood, and the residents of Tampa deserve a place to enjoy just as the other neighborhoods of Tampa do. But because it is a downtown core, it needs something else; a way for all residents, regardless of where they live, to be able to visit easily and without driving. So I will be working with HART in the short-term to create specific routes that carry people from all of our neighborhoods into the downtown core, and my goals is to have those specific routes free to the public like the TECO streetcar is doing now. This will require some creativity and reallocation of wasteful spending elsewhere, but by rolling out one route at a time, we can begin to foster an increase in ridership on main lines, and still have paid connector lines to the free mainlines.

TOPIC #5: Workforce Housing (aka Affordable Housing)

  • Background: Downtown has seen an influx of new luxury multifamily developments come out of the ground and there are many more planned. Some argue they are not priced as workforce housing. If our goal is to attract workers and millennials to our Downtown, many worry that it will not be affordable for them to live where they work and play.
  • Question: What incentives and collaboration with the development community would you implement to address this growing concern?

This question is too complex to answer in 60-seconds or less, but I can share with you one idea. By eliminating the minimum parking standards, in exchange for workforce housing units, the developers win because they don’t have to spend money on wasteful spaces, and the tenants win because they have a place they can afford to live in. This, combined with transit-oriented development, can allow the workers to get to their places of work without the need for a car. To just give someone a discounted place to live, without providing them the tools from the city to move from one place to another, doesn’t actually solve the problem.

The city of Tampa owns roughly 600 properties, many of which are not being utilized, and they need to be put to good use. We should be working with developers to create truly affordable housing options like tiny homes, shipping container homes, and 3D printed houses. The moment we stop insisting the affordable housing has to look a certain way based on our past experience we can create some really amazing places that don’t look like affordable housing, but instead, make people feel inspired by where they live.

TOPIC #6: Regionalism

  • Background: The Tampa Bay region has been criticized for not speaking with one voice. Our major concerns span city and county borders – and even bodies of water.
  • Question: How will you collaborate with the region’s leaders to ensure collective support to address issues like transportation and urban planning on a regional basis, and what is the role of the Mayor of Tampa?

Collaboration can only happen when all parties share a common vision and have a governing set of principles they can all agree to. Five years ago, I wrote the book Collaboration Economy which focused on how businesses that do not evolve and accept that we are living in the collaboration age will be unsuccessful. Since then, I have worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs in Tampa and across the globe, to help them turn their competition into their allies. By using these same techniques of leadership and collaboration, I know I can bring our regional government bodies together so we can all play in the same sandbox.

A perfect example of this would be the regional MPOs that need to work together for a common good. The moment an individual MPO places their individual interests above the group’s well being, collaboration runs the risk of failing. We see this happen all the time in government when one party puts the needs of their party over our country. We see this when Hillsborough competes instead of collaborates with Pinellas. A deal that is good for Hillsborough but bad for Pinellas is a deal that is bad for the Tampa Bay region.

Regional planning efforts need to be underway to address our water problems, transit problems, and environmental problems. And the thing is, they all go hand-in-hand. Pinellas and Pasco fighting Tampa over Toilet to Tap is bad for us as a region, because if the city is able to create its own supply, more resources will be available for the other two counties and rest of Hillsborough.

We need a robust regional transit plan so people can live and work in any part of Tampa Bay, and still get to wherever they want to go.

Regionalism is a form of collaboration. And I literally wrote a book on collaboration.

TOPIC #: Retail

  • Background: Year after year, our biennial survey results show that our Downtown residents’ and workers’ retail needs are not being met. Currently, there is no pharmacy or retail center in our urban core.
  • Question: Explain how you plan to attract and provide greater opportunities for retail to grow and prosper.

According to Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City, active storefronts lead to stronger Downtowns and, interestingly enough, to happier residents. While some developers like Feldman Equities gets this and builds active storefronts into their design, other developers have not proven to act responsibly on their own. I would argue that mixed use development that doesn’t design active storefronts to encourage walkability and a vibrant economy is as irresponsible as not building to code. We have building codes to control design, and our codes were never written in ways that require active storefronts. But this oversight is inconsistent without our downtown core objective. So one of two things need to change. We need city council members to be educated sufficiently on what makes a vibrant downtown core so they can reject building permits for development out of alignment with our objective OR we need to update the building codes so that city council can simply approve projects based on updated codes. A perfect example is the new development being built across from our city hall. It has no retail space or walkability design built into it and approving that build was a mistake. The new Hyatt development is also an example of a design without retail space. As your Mayor, I will put a stop to this on-going practice of bad design.

TOPIC #8: Homelessness

  • Background: Downtowns across the country are working to focus on homelessness and the impact it has on the perception of their urban core. Tampa is no different.
  • Question: What plan will you implement to directly address the issue of homelessness, in a way that provides dignity and kindness to individuals, while creating a better image of our city for visitors, workers, and residents?

I love this question because I have always said that my homeless friends want respect and dignity more than anything. If we go out to Gaslight park right now, I can point to several of my friends and tell you their names and about their lives. The big thing I want you to know is, this isn’t just a talking point for me. I have been involved in this cause for a very long time and I truly want what’s best for my friends.

I have published Four Stage Plan on my website HERE: Housing First, Homeless NOT Helpless, Ride to Work, Support Services

TOPIC #9: Connectivity

Background: Private investment is bringing many new developments to Tampa’s Downtown; each with its own design and landscape.

Question: What is your vision for implementing a pedestrian-level streetscape design plan that is connected, cohesive, and consistent throughout each of Downtown Tampa’s districts? (CBD, River Arts District, Channel District, Water Street, Tampa Heights)

A well-designed streetscape can make a 20-minute walk feel like a five-minute walk. A poorly designed streetscape makes a five-minute walk feel like 20-minutes. For far too long we have simply designed our roads to get cars from one point to another without taking into consideration the people on bikes and walking. Tell me which life is more important…more valuable: the one walking, riding a bike or driving their car? I don’t know about you but I can’t choose; they are equally important. And if we don’t design our roads that give equal attention to the needs of all three, we’ve let down our community.

When we design a streetscape in ways that encourage walkability, we help decrease congestion by taking cars off roads. Everybody wins. There are roads that are better-suited for feet than cars, and frankly don’t work very well for vehicles anyway. Franklin St. Downtown is a perfect example. I will run a pilot program to transform Franklin St. into a pedestrian road. With the fast-paced Tampa St. And Florida Ave. people are searching for a safe, enjoyable way to walk from the northern part of downtown to the southern part. This makes sense, and it’s a very underutilized road for cars anyway. It has the potential to be our smaller, more lovable version of Times Square.

TOPIC #10: Education in Urban Centers

  • Background: The Tampa Downtown Partnership fully supports the presence of educational institutions within Tampa’s Downtown to serve the families of its residents and workers, giving parents the option of being close to their children during the day and allowing parents to get more engaged in their child’s education. The Sam Rampello Downtown Partnership School is a joint venture project between the School District of Hillsborough County and the Tampa Downtown Partnership. Located in the heart of downtown, it is among one of the few magnet schools in Hillsborough County.
  • Question: How do you see schools playing a prominent role in Tampa’s Downtown and how will you work with the School Superintendent and other academic leaders to support education initiatives?

I understand that education is outside of the control of the Mayor, but there is one thing the Mayor does have control over; and that’s how I can choose to use our bully pulpit to bring attention to the things that we as a city and a county need to focus on. As a society, it’s time we stop marginalizing vocational work and glorifying degree positions. A leader who focuses on vocational support services can change the tone of a city. And I plan to do that.

Apprenticeship programs are great ways to give people the opportunity to break into an industry they normally would not be able to break into. Community empowerment begins with an investment in our local community members. By prioritizing state certified apprentices on city-funded construction and maintenance projects, we can better support the livelihood of our neighbors and friends.

I think we spend too much attention on STEM and not enough attention on STEAM. I’d like to inspire our schools to bring back the Arts to compliment the Science, Tech, Engineering and Math and here’s why. The Arts are where we teach our students learn about love, and how to recover from heartache. The arts teach us how to handle rejection, and teach us about the human spirit and show us how to get along with people who differ in our views. I feel we are creating a generation that is lacking some of the basic fundamental coping strategies in life. And you can’t learn those things in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math…you learn them through the Arts. I’ll be the Mayor that puts a spotlight on the Arts and we will be a happier city because of it.

Our educational facilities are long overdue for some upkeep. With the Save our Schools referendum passing, we can expect the facilities to get the support they need. But I’m more concerned about giving the teachers the support they need. Our schools can accommodate the growth, but can our teachers? Teachers are underpaid. Period. And if we want our schools to be better at educating our students, we will never make that happen while paying our teachers what they get right now. Florida’s public education quality ranking is currently #26 in the US, even though our teachers’ pay is ranked #42. Imagine the kind of top talent we could attract and the results we could produce if we were among the highest ranking in pay as well?