Commerce Park needs a reset

Dear Editor:

A proposal was resubmitted to St. Petersburg City Council recently for the project called Commerce Park.  It is essentially a 14-acre parcel of land that the city entered into a development deal to bring jobs and housing to Midtown.

The original deal did not work out, and the city had begun eviction proceedings.  The tenants came up with a revised proposal and resubmitted it to the city administration, who then presented it to city council for approval.  After several issues were raised, the proposal was pulled for further review.  That is where the project currently sits.

First, let me say that the original proposal was deficient in many respects. Those deficiencies were one of several reasons that it did not work out. The revised plan is equally inadequate for the following reasons:

  1. The goods and services being produced by the businesses are not for consumption by the community. They are being produced for other customers that live outside the community.
  2. The promise of jobs is the magic elixir that has been used time and again to get this community to go along with projects.  However, further analysis has often shown many of the jobs to be transitional, filled by others, temporary, illusory or outright non-existent.

Most of the jobs generated by this project are actually jobs that already exist, and Midtown residents are not currently performing them.   The new jobs that could be performed by Midtown residents are on average, average jobs.  They are not high paying jobs.

The people who would hold these jobs, for the most part, would not be able to afford to live in the housing developed in the rest of the project unless the city provided additional subsidies to the project.

  1. Half of the 300 units of housing are permitted to be market-rate housing. The other half is designed to be workforce housing where occupants could qualify on income of 80 percent to 120 percent of Area Median Income (AMI).

If the city can provide additional subsidy, 10 percent of the workforce housing can be provided to tenants that meet 60 percent of AMI. While this may sound appealing, the reality is that most of the current residents of Midtown would not qualify for the workforce housing much less the market-rate housing.

In other words, the housing is not being developed for use by the current residents of Midtown. It is being developed for people that currently live in other parts of the city or is new to the area.

When a project is developed in a community that does not provide goods and services for the residents of that community, it creates jobs, most of which are not held by the residents of that community, and develops housing that is unaffordable for the current residents of that community, it meets the textbook definition of gentrification.

Allowing this project to move forward would be a travesty given the dire need of the entire city and the Midtown community in particular for affordable housing.

The city providing subsidies for market-rate housing, as would be the case if the tabled proposal was to move forward, makes no sense.  The city has a very vibrant development environment for market-rate housing.   It is being built in every nook and cranny available.

Some would say that subsidizing market-rate units is necessary to get the affordable units built.  The reality is that it would be an inefficient way to get affordable housing into the community. It is much more efficient just to provide subsidy to an affordable housing project.

What is needed here is a reset.  The developers of the original project were given a very fair opportunity to bring their project to fruition.  They failed to do so. In the meantime, the city has moved forward, and circumstances have changed to such an extent that new alternatives need to be considered and pursued.

St. Petersburg is a very built-out city. There are very few large tracts of land for the development of anything.  Giving up a 14-acre plot of land for 31 great jobs would be a difficult deal to justify.  Giving up a plot of this size and magnitude for 31 very average jobs that are only guaranteed through a relatively short compliance period would be a dereliction of duty.

This plot of land is unique.  It is ideally situated within a community in dire need of affordable housing.    There may not be another plot of land within the city so ideally located, certainly not within this community.

Also, the city can and should require the developers to agree to commit the project to affordable housing for at least 50 years. This compares very favorably to giving it away for relatively short-term job guarantees.

This whole process was undertaken to allow the city to utilize this acreage for job creation.  After the original plan failed, this backup idea was developed to avoid having to repay the Department of Labor money it had provided for the acquisition of the land.

While this may have had some level of importance in the past, it no longer should.  Even if the jobs generated are everything that the developers say they are, their value pales in comparison to the necessity for affordable housing at this time.

The city should simply reimburse the Labor Department.  That would free them up to make the best long-term decision, not only for Midtown but for the city as a whole. Currently, the provision of affordable housing is far more important than the provision of a few short-term jobs.

It is strongly recommended that this administration resubmit this acreage in a Request for Proposal for affordable housing for the entire project.  They would also be well advised to properly incentivize the request so that more of the housing could qualify under the 60 percent of AMI standard.

The balance of the project would have to meet the 80 percent to 120 percent of AMI standards, which would allow most of the current residents of Midtown to qualify to live in the project.

The city just announced a new affordable housing program.  This project, as an affordable housing project would allow the city to hit the ground running.  It would allow them to create a benchmark that could steer the direction of this program for the rest of its 10-year life.

This project provides the city with an opportunity to address an urgent need while working to restore some sense of assurance within this community that the city is finally going to do what it says it is going to do.

I would certainly like to encourage this administration to move forward with this project and get the community involved with its development and implementation from the outset.  This could create the opportunity for a new beginning that is so sorely needed by the Midtown community and the City of St. Petersburg.

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