A big city move: Tampa plans Riverwalk extension on west side of river

Since it first opened to public in 1989 -- replacing what were once vacant lots filled by homeless encampments and a few dilapidated buildings -- the Tampa Riverwalk has become increasingly popular spot for walking, running and other outdoor recreation.

Soon, the existing 2.6-mile Riverwalk winding along the east side of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa will have about 3.5 more miles added on the west side for people and pets to promenade.

Over the next four years, plans call for an additional “West River District BUILD Grant project” to connect West Tampa and downtown neighborhoods and expand the current walk-bike network.

Work on the “West Riverwalk” or the “West River project” is just beginning. The new concrete sidewalk will parallel the current one on the east bank of the river. It will go from Platt Street near the Bayshore Boulevard Publix in Hyde Park north to near Rick’s on the River bar, restaurant and marina off of Columbus Avenue.

And that’s great news to Tampa residents such as Brian Taylor, who says he enjoys almost daily bicycle rides or walks on the current Riverwalk and uses it to go to events across Tampa several times a month. The 53-year-old artist and art teacher moved to Tampa in 1975 and has lived in Ybor City since 2003; he says the expansion will garner more positive recognition for the city’s livability factor.

“I see the expansion of the Riverwalk to be immensely important in order to realize the full potential of what it offers to Tampa residents and visitors alike,” he says. “It is because of the Riverwalk’s development that we now see it as a major artery forming a link between neighborhoods and a reason for people to get out and enjoy the best of what Tampa has to offer.”

The main reason for the expansion, says Brandie Miklus, infrastructure and mobility program coordinator for the City of Tampa, is safety. The project’s total of 6.1 miles will be pedestrian and bicycle accessible, separated from vehicle traffic. 

Overall, the project is more than the expansion of the Riverwalk on the west side of the river. Miklus says it also includes on-road improvements such as protected bike lanes and enhanced crosswalks. The goal is to provide safer ways to get around the west side of the Hillsborough River, connecting local neighborhoods and expanding the walking-biking network.

To finance the project, the city was able to secure a $24 million federal grant from the Federal Highway Administration in late 2020 through their discretionary grant program: Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants, now known as Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE). The project will cost roughly $30 million in total with additional funding coming from the City of Tampa, so it’s about 80 percent federally funded, 20 percent locally.

“The city plans to advertise the project this summer to get a design-build contractor on board,’’ says Miklus, who’s worked for the city since 2020. “Once a contractor has been selected, the project design will start in 2023 with substantial completion by December 2026.’’ 
The newer part of the Riverwalk -- separated from automobile traffic -- will be a more utilitarian avenue, rather than having a focus on recreational activities and entertainment. It will a transformative addition to the current Riverwalk which will help bring together neighborhoods on the western side of the river and connect them to the ongoing residential, business and entertainment growth going on in downtown Tampa. 

That connection via the West River Project will go north to Columbus Drive and border Rome Avenue going west and will presumably be an asset to the residents of some of the area’s changing neighborhoods, says Miklus. 

Some of the neighborhoods which will be connected to downtown via the West River Project include: West Tampa, Tampa Heights, Bayshore Boulevard, Hyde Park, North Hyde Park, Riverside Heights, Bowman Heights, Ridgewood Park and Ybor City with multimodal paths and streets.

Already over the past 10 years, apartments and condominiums have been constructed west of downtown, plus shops, new restaurants and an urban grocery store.

Among the expansion benefits of the West River Project, according to the City of Tampa, will be:
  • Mobility via the walk-bike network by providing separated from vehicle traffic.
  • Increased safety in an area with a high number of pedestrian and bicycle accidents with the construction of by building Complete Streets and traffic calming features.
  • Quality-of-life and economic improvements through competition via the pedestrian and bicycle link between the “communities in the project area, downtown employment centers, and essential services.”
  • Environmental health through the restoration of the river’s natural shoreline to increase wildlife habitats, filter out stormwater runoff and provide more protection from “high tides, storms and hurricanes.”
According to the City, the timeline for completing the West Riverwalk is tentatively to have the BUILD Grant Agreement approved by the City Council in April, have the design-build project advertised in the summer, and have the design-build contract signed by early 2023. From there, the design phase completion should be spring 2024 and the construction phase substantially completed by Dec. 2026.
“This is all about having safer connections. It’s more than just an expansion on the west side of the river. It’s about connecting neighborhoods and that’s what we’re most excited about,” Miklos says. “It’s kind of hard to imagine Tampa without The Riverwalk. This project will be an essential link connecting neighborhoods, to downtown, to other neighborhoods on each side of the interstate (I-275). This is a just a great example of how Tampa is making big-city moves.” 
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Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.