Community column: Pro-development advocates eager to transform Bonita into what we don’t want to be

Before there is “build it and they will come,” there is zone it and they will build it. With little fanfare (not surprising considering the lack of public knowledge of the event), at the May 18 zoning meeting, the city council moved forward with development plans for the five acre, city-owned Bamboo Village property on Old 41 which is bisected by the river. Maybe it was the long hours the council had already put in that day, and/or they already had their minds made up, but there was little or no discussion on the staff report, compliance with Comprehensive Plan, traffic, or flooding concerns. With a five-to-two vote approval, the zoning classification included right to build on up to 80 percent of the parcel and allow 102 condominium units and 30,000 square feet of commercial area, up to 60 feet plus high. Ironically, more concern was earlier given to the Angler’s Paradise rezoning located further downriver at new U.S. 41 across from Bonita Bay. For that case, the council reviewed photos taken from a blimp and placed more restrictive river setbacks and height limits than at the Old Bonita property.

It also surprised me there was no discussion of the evidence that in New Port Richey, the same type of mixed-use development, called Main Street Landing which our Imperial Landing concept was copied after, has been a complete failure. It was similar to the project that developer Antaramian had proposed for our city. Unfortunately for New Port Richey, the project started and then failed with the downturn in the economy. Their town is currently debating whether to bulldoze and clear what remains of its beginning construction, or to invest more taxpayer money into the mixed used development with millions in loans to the private developer.

This has been a big concern of mine; that selling the land to a private developer would put the fate of success in a developers hands, outside of city control, and tie the property’s fate to swings in the real estate market and economy. To the contrary, parks and cultural facilities are not subject to the same economic factors and use of parks and public facilities usually go up in bad times.

It seems the city council is sticking with the consultant’s plan from 2004, despite that throughout the process, city residents have never been formally surveyed on what they want for the property’s future. This also comes at a time when, across America, many cities are realizing the wisdom in investing in parks instead of buildings to improve the tax base and the quality of life for its residents. More and more studies are showing the economic benefits of open space and parks.

Relevant to our situation is the example Eugene, Oregon, made by focusing on buildings instead of parks and how they realized that buildings and their tenants come and go. In Eugene’s case, after spending countless staff hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars on elaborate plans and complicated financial projections, the buildings did not even come. Their redevelopment focus is now changing from buildings to parks as they realize — public funds should go to public infrastructure and the highest return on investment is with downtown parks.

What had been proposed in Eugene before, with subsidies to one or two large investors, can skew the market for years. Future developers will be clamoring for the same types of subsidies to stay competitive. They concluded that this focus on the financial bottom line, which is what many city staff and elected officials in Eugene prioritized, should not overshadow other benefits of downtown parks. That parks are essential attributes of sustainable urbanism — and to improve the environmental condition of our cities, we need to add as much green space as possible. Plazas and paved urban squares can be quite nice, but they do not have many of the ecological benefits of real parks.

I wonder if we are not suffering the consequences of our city having no long-range planning department. I also wonder how we will reconcile this zoning decision with our comprehensive plan goal of “By 2017, the city shall accommodate new growth by acquiring new open space/greenway lands to add to the city network.”

Contradicting smart-growth principles of placing density where there is infrastructure and existing high density, the pro-development advocates for high rises along the river in Old Bonita and sprawling density out into the DRGR seem eager to transform us into the same sort of city that we often say we don’t want to be. Florida has a history of placing a burden on future generations with short-sighted development decisions. When our city population is counted in the hundreds of thousands as projected, I wonder if future residents will appreciate our past zoning decisions.

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