Redesigning Tampa's Urban Core Sparks Creativity

Now that the Riverwalk and three brand spanking new museums stand poised to spawn downtown Tampa's long-awaited rebirth, imagine adding a terrace garden on the north end near Interstate 275 -- and envision the south end without a waterfront convention center.

Add a daily farmer's market in the midst of the urban core, a much greater mixture of housing stock, more eclectic places to work, play and relax, and new ways to enjoy the surrounding river and bay waters above, beneath and on the surface.

These aren't just pipe dreams.

They are within the realm of possibility, say six graduate students in the University of South Florida's School of Architecture and Community Design.

The students, working in groups of three, created design projects to compete in the 2008-2009 Green Community International Student Design Competition, organized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, the National Building Museum and Architectural Record.

The competition drew 260 entries, representing 1,322 students and approximately 200 faculty members from 76 universities and 15 countries.

Just 14 teams won honors. USF was the only university to bring home two awards.

Revitalizing Nebraska Avenue

One USF team, made up of  Amalia Bamis, Kirsten Dahlquist and Li Yu, won third place. Their design was called "Urban Green Community: Revitalizing the South Nebraska District."

The other group – Lidiya Angelova, Monika Blazenovic and Thao Nguyen – received one of nine citations awarded by the judges. Their entry was called "Reclaiming."

"The students came up with some very interesting ideas," says Vikas Mehta, their faculty sponsor.

The South Nebraska plan tackled a range of challenges, particularly near the junction of Interstate 275 and Interstate 4, Mehta says.

The group focused on an area of approximately 171 acres, roughly bounded by Nuccio Parkway on the south and east, Palm Avenue on the north and Interstate 275 on the west.

 "How does one create value in land that is so close to this infrastructure?" Mehta asks. "It's the worst kind of space, near the highway. It's the least expensive space."

The graduate students' design transforms the space with a 12-acre terrace garden, running along the edge of the Interstate. The plan calls for palm and citrus trees close to the highway, to mitigate noise and pollution.

As the garden steps down, it has streams running through it, as well as vegetable and flower gardens. There are places to run rollerblade and ride bicycles.

Instead of being "throw-away" land, the garden's bounty would help sustain the community, as well as being a gathering spot and a place to exercise.

In planning the garden, the team consulted with researchers from the Florida Center for Design and Research , Bamis says. The proposed garden is no collection of random plants: The choices were deliberate. The plants are viable for this location.

Socializing Seemingly Unfriendly Places

Every city has its off-limits zones, Yu says. These areas typically are near highways and railroad tracks and are not welcoming places, she says.

"I think it's important to take these places and try to find opportunity in them -- to kind of socialize these places," Yu says.

The team's plan also includes a variety of housing choices.

"We introduced an entire new stock of housing," Dahlquist says, including brownstones, walkups and row houses.

"You can choose where you want to live," Dahlquist says, adding that her generation has an inherent need to shape the world, to make the planet more sustainable for future inhabitants.

Dahlquist says the entire team shares that passion.

"I think all of us have the same feeling about the suburbs and the cookie-cutter houses and the unsustainable building practices and the urban sprawl and SUVs," she says.

In putting together its design, the team explored the neighborhood – looking to discover and retain the parks, buildings and schools which have meaning to the community.

Their plan also incorporates green roofs, solar panels, rain gardens and improved transit corridors.

 "As a whole, the proposal at its most simplistic function is to patch and mend the broken fabric of the city, but its highest essence is to create a district that enables Tampa to come closer to its potential as a vibrant, sustainable city of the future," the graduate students say in their design essay.  

The design presents new possibilities, Dahlquist says. "Living in the urban core doesn't mean living in a dirty, busy, overcrowded place. You can live in the urban core and have all of these amenities."

The design goals may seem lofty, but the team believes they are within reach.

Reclaiming The Riverfront

The other design project, "Reclaiming," covers an area south of Kennedy Boulevard, generally between the Hillsborough River and Channelside.

It advocates relocating the city's convention center to a different part of town and reclaiming the waterfront for the public's enjoyment.

It doesn't make sense to have such a large building blocking views of the water, Blazenovic says. People don't go to the convention center to experience the beauty of the water, she says.

Instead, most activities at the convention center happen indoors, in rooms without views of the water, design team members say.

If you take away the convention center, you don't need the hotel next door, Nguyen says – opening up even more of the waterfront to the public.

The team's design aims to encourage a range of activities in downtown, such as communal gardening, jogging and biking. It also calls for a mix of residential and commercial uses in low-rise buildings.

The idea is to create a place which appeals to diverse people, with varied interests, Nguyen says. They want downtown to be more than a place where many go just to pay taxes or bills.

"Reclaiming" also seeks to reconnect parts of the downtown grid which had been split, to make easier to walk around.

One proposal calls for closing a downtown ramp to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

"Right now, the ramp is creating a divide, from the north side to the south side," Nyugen explains.

Both design teams sought ways to breathe new life into areas they think have been overlooked.

These design teams believe that vibrant urban communities are possible.

As Dahlquist puts it: "Living in the urban core doesn't (have to) mean living in a dirty, busy, overcrowded place. You can live in the urban core and have all of these amenities."

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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