By Amber Jurgensen | Staff Writer
Acres of cracked concrete slabs have been sitting vacant for years alongside the bustling traffic of Collins Street downtown. Several signs bordering the bare parcels depict an idyllic town square with busy shops and a village green.
These signs signify the plan for the property — a Midtown — where retired empty nesters can live in an apartment above an art gallery and young professionals can grab a gourmet cup of coffee before the start of a work day.
Although the Midtown Redevelopment Vision Plan seems to have made little progress since its inception in 2007, new headway has begun. This month, cleanup of the Hydraulic Hose and Cylinder site on the northwest corner of Ball and Evers streets will begin. PPM Consultants Inc., the environmental consultant for the Midtown Brownfield site, selected FECC Inc., of Orlando, to perform the work. About 1,175 tons of petroleum-impacted soil — as well as contaminated water — will be removed. The project should be completed by Aug. 31.
“We’re excited that the project is moving forward,” City Manager Greg Horwedel said. “It’s the first stage out of three, and we’re ready to get going.”
Under the Brownfields Cleanup Grant Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded Plant City the maximum amount of $200,000, of which 20% must be matched locally, to assist with the cleanup. The city will use funds from the Community Redevelopment Agency Trust Fund and credits from the Water and Sewer Fund for treatment of groundwater. The city also has submitted an application for loans through Hillsborough County’s Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund.
The city also is working to start construction on the straightening and extension of Wheeler Street, which will create room for a community park. The plans will be introduced to the Plant City Commission in the next few months. The city hopes to acquire a segment of Sweetbay’s parking lot at 507 Wheeler St. for the construction. Originally, the city proposed a land swap with the owners of the parcel. The city has made a first offer for the parcel; the owners have until early August to respond.
From 1997 to 2007, Plant City experienced growth, mostly in residential sectors. In 2007, inspired by that growth, city leaders conceived the Midtown Redevelopment Vision Plan, which then-Mayor Rick Lott coined.
“I felt like we had a hole between downtown and south Plant City,” Lott said. “With so many small parcels in the Midtown area and the pollutants that have to be cleaned up, it would have been hard for a private investor to get the project started, according to Lott. So the city decided to take on the “bold challenge.”
David Sollenberger, who was the city manager when the Midtown plan first started, and then-Assistant City Manager Greg Horwedel, both spent time developing downtown Sarasota. With their combined experience, they were perfect for the job, Lott said.
“When I first started in Sarasota, you could fire a cannonball down the street without hitting anyone or any cars,” Horwedel said. “Now, people complain that they can’t even find parking. That is a hallmark of success — when you start having parking problems.”
The 85-acre Midtown is designed to be a pedestrian-friendly network of neighborhood-oriented businesses such as bookstores and coffee shops. The plan also includes residential apartments and lofts and a village green. Fourteen acres are owned by the city, the rest by private investors.
“We spent a lot of time and energy trying to pull this together,” Horwedel said. “We got quite a bit of community input. It’s an ambitious project, but it is one that’s absolutely necessary if we are going to change the future for that area of the city.”
Midtown is funded primarily by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, an entity created in 1981 specifically for city revitalization. In the past five years, the city spent $4.75 million on the demolition of businesses such as Gro Mor and Stock Lumber and to purchase parcels on-site. The city has designated $1.6 million to clean up pollution from the Gro Mor Fertilizer Plant.
For the plan to be executed, certain streets will be extended and straightened, including Alabama, Evers and Wheeler streets. In addition to street changes, the plan calls for widening of sidewalks and planting trees along certain stretches of streets.
“This was not a project that was going to happen overnight,” Lott said. “We just have to stand true to the plan and know we’re going to have something that will complete the town.”
After the demolition of businesses, beginning with Stock Lumber in 2009, Midtown has remained a field of concrete slabs. The city wants to pull up the slabs to create a green area, to make the parcels more attractive to potential investors.
But because of a law regulated by the South Florida Water Management District, retention ponds must be placed in areas where any impervious surfaces, such as the concrete slabs, are removed. Swiftmud has remained steadfast to the law, despite the city downtown stormwater drainage system, which has been in place since the 1950s.
City officials said the law presents two major problems for Plant City. The urban downtown area doesn’t have space for retention ponds. Furthermore, if the ponds are created on the cleared property, they will take space originally planned for development.
“We need a developer to feel comfortable with the amount of income-producing property he can use,” Commissioner Daniel Raulerson said about the law, which he calls “good intentioned, with unintended consequences.”
In the past two sessions, a bill seeking to change the law has been stalled in the state senate’s budget committees.
Currently, the city is working with Swiftmud Executive Director Blake Guillory to resolve the retention pond issue. Guillory toured the site about four weeks ago and should report back to the city in several months after revisiting the issue with his staff.
Swiftmud has recently issued an environmental resource permit for the Midtown Redevelopment area in Plant City, which includes a proposed stormwater pond and modifications to an existing pond to provide future water quality treatment needs in the area.
If Swiftmud still refuses to budge, then the city will have to turn to the legislative system again to try to change the law.
“This is one of the things that I want to address at the state level,” Raulerson, who is running for Florida House of Representatives District 58, said. “The legislative process hasn’t yielded the results we want in the past. What I want to try to do in the Legislature is to give us some wiggle room. We’ve got the money to pull that concrete up and make green areas.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knotts Trading and Supply has been in business on Plant City’s main drag in historic downtown for 78 years. The hardware store has seen the town change along with three generations of family owners. How has it survived for so long? Customer service, according to Johnny Knotts, the current owner.
But just across the street is a different picture. Acres of concrete slabs are the only remnants of what used to be neighboring businesses. Originally in favor of Midtown, Knotts is worried the prolonged absence of shopping and businesses in the area by his store is negatively affecting his business.
“The reason it has affected me, is [that] human beings are perceptible creatures,” Knotts said. “So what they look at and perceive is what they believe. They might think, ‘Is there any reason to come to this part of town?’ That’s my whole complaint with Midtown.”.” >http://lovejanetphoto.com/raschetniy-schet-onlayn.php