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City Engages Residents To Design Tampa's Riverfront Park

Everyone can agree that Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is a mess, a fragmented, under-used swath of land that hides its best asset -- the Hillsborough River.

But there also is agreement that the approximately 23-acre park has tremendous potential as a major attraction in a grander plan to re-invent Tampa's urban core and connect downtown with surrounding neighborhoods on both sides of the river.

As part of the city-led Invision Tampa process, nearly 200 people met in early May with landscape architectural consultants from Denver-based Civitas to re-imagine Riverfront Park. There was no shortage of ideas.

How about a ferris wheel? An urban beach? A hammock grove?

The consensus at the meeting is the ferris wheel is an appealing idea. The urban beach is an attraction some like and some don't. And, the hammock grove gets a decided thumbs down.

"We need to make this a park we are proud of but...we need to know what your hopes and aspirations are," says Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "This is your park. We're starting with your ideas."

The city is paying Civitas and its team members about $708,000 to craft a plan that will guide future decisions on re-developing Riverfront Park. City officials estimate costs of renovating the park will be about $8 million. Three additional public meetings are planned (June 10, August 12, September 9) including presentation of a final plan on Sept. 9. All meetings will be held at Howard W. Blake High School at 1701 North Boulevard.

At the first meeting, people met in small discussion groups with consultants and city officials. Then, they registered  likes and dislikes with sticky dots plastered on posters filled with picture-perfect postcards of park activities. It was green for yes; red for no.

Making better use of the riverfront is a priority for many.

The North Hyde Park Alliance envisions a freshwater tropical beach along the river banks, similar to one in downtown Brisbane, Australia.

"Who has that? Nobody. It will put Tampa on the map," says Rob Dubsky, president of the not-for-profit business-based organization. "It stops people from leaving here and going to Pinellas. This park is centered. Everybody can access it."

But on this idea red dots compete with green ones. An urban beach is not what everyone wants.

Kevin Young and Qui Phan would like better access to the river for canoe and kayak launches, and trails that link Riverfront all the way to Plant Park at the University of Tampa. "You'd connect UT and tourists to this park and it would be another major entry way to the park," says Young. As it is now, Young says, "It's like an alien landscape instead of a park."

It could be a bustling park that is within an easy bicycle ride or short walk from area neighborhoods, says Phan. "I want it to be beautiful, usable and accessible."

The plan that emerges for redeveloping Riverfront will play an important role in the overall revitalization of the neighborhood but also within the city's overall master plan for city-wide redevelopment. That plan pushes out the urban boundaries to put the river squarely in the center of Tampa's future growth.

For nearly two years city officials and AECOM consultants have held community meetings and walking tours to gather input for a unified redevelopment plan - known as Invision Tampa -- that will be a road map over the next five to 20 years.

Gathering input on Riverfront Park is the next step toward putting ideas into practice. Previous meetings have focused on master plans for the West River neighborhood and the traffic corridors of Nebraska and Hillsborough avenues.

Tampa Housing Authority is in early planning stages for re-developing the nearby public housing complex of North Boulevard Homes. Depending on availability of federal funds, the apartments will be torn down in future and replaced with a mixed-income, mixed-use complex.

Some ideas that met with favor for Riverfront include more lighting, more parking areas, a picnic area with grills, more tennis courts, boat rentals, a community market, a running loop and a pavilion. Dislikes, besides the hammock grove, included a fitness wall and a leisure area.

On-going dialogue with residents and community leaders began weeks ago, says Civitas' President Mark Johnson.

Among the findings is a belief among some area residents that the park is part of the University of Tampa or Tampa Preparatory School.

"They don't know it's part of the community," he says. "We found that to be very revealing."

The park is about a 10-minute walk from downtown and is almost as close to North Hyde Park but Johnson says, "It seems further than it is."

That is in large part due to a lack of trails linking the park with other neighborhoods. Some parts of the park, particularly along Laurel Street, are hard to reach and lack parking. Groves of oak and palm trees close off the park and block views of the river.

"Many people don't associate the park with the river," Johnson says.

The city built the park 37 years ago on land that once was part of Roberts City, a working-class neighborhood that sprang up in the late 1890s around the Ellinger cigar factory. Urban renewal in the 1960s laid waste to the neighborhood.

Local historian Fred Hearns hopes that the neighborhood's history, which includes Roberts City but also Fortune Street Bridge, Main Street and Phillips Field, will be honored and recognized at the park. A marker for Phillips Field, a landmark sports venue, was dedicated at Riverfront park last year.

"This is a good start," says Howard Harris, who remembers bringing his children to the park years ago and is eager to see a trail system linking Riverfront with other neighborhoods. It will make his thrice-weekly 4-mile treks from his home near Columbus Drive to downtown safer and easier. "The park could be a real asset to the new neighborhood that is coming," Harris says. "It needs to be done."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer and editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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