Urban Charrette Helps Nurture Life In Downtown Tampa

How to make downtown Tampa a livable, interesting (and now sustainable) place has been a question its civic leaders have been trying to answer since it was a boggy jumping-off place for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th Century.

The signs marking the city limits in the late 20th Century proclaiming it as "America's Next Great City," reiterated the ideal, but the goal has proven elusive.

Now a small, but highly energized group of people, coming together as a nonprofit organization called Urban Charrette, hopes to help transform Tampa into a place to call home for transplants as well as natives while attracting talented new residents.

The founders bring a mix of architectural, design, artistic, political and progressive thinking credentials to the task. Two, the married team of Taryn Sabia-Fritz, 31, and Adam Fritz, 36, grew up viewing Tampa as The Big City from their families' homes in New Port Richey and Port Charlotte respectively. But that perspective changed a bit once they ventured to other metropolises.

Sabia-Fritz, who has a master's degree in architecture, realized how interesting, habitable and even fun a city could be when she attended Harvard University in Boston.  

"There are things I loved about being up there, a vibrant atmosphere,'' she says. "I wanted to feel a vibrant atmosphere here, one ... where you have that great feeling when you go downtown or in the way you get there."

Urban Charrette can seem like a guerrilla movement in its approach to influencing urban development, compared to the usual process of meetings, hearings and deals between politicians, officials and developers that often take place in paneled and upholstered chambers.

Staging special events, like a "Complete Streets" day in February, is one example. The Complete Streets concept transformed a section of Madison St. into a model thoroughfare with space for pedestrians, bicycles, buses and even cars, and an urban ambience enhanced with greenery and sidewalk cafés.

Urban Charrette enlisted the help of landscape architect Shaun Drinkard and sought input from the community during one of the group's open mic events where the public, planners and even politicians come together to exchange ideas.

 "Too often our streets are focused on the automobile and not a well-rounded street, so this gives an example of how everybody in the community can benefit from the street," he says.

Creating Opportunities For All

According to Urban Charrette board member Joanne Fiebe, those who would benefit include downtown residents who currently live in the shadows of the office buildings and condominiums where many of Tampa's professionals work and play.

"The big problem now is a lack of services within downtown such as viable transportation and businesses that provide services. As more people move into downtown you'll see those things improve and there will be more opportunities for everyone," she says.

Urban Charrette makes great use of the Internet and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Ning to promote its efforts and rally supporters. But classic, face-to-face networking is part of the mix as well. The open mic events, which they characterize as creative community discussions, often feature established leaders such as Ed Turanchik and elected officials like State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel,  to discuss topics such as high-speed rail.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership, which has played an important role in improving the downtown area since 1987, often works with Urban Charrette on projects and outreach efforts.

"Our goals certainly align," says Karen Kress, TDP's director of transportation and planning.

The Urban Charrette has been a great partner, Kress says. "They do a great job of pulling people together to rally around the cause of creating a vibrant urban core."

Encouraging Sustainable Choices

Another project Urban Charrette is working on in conjunction with the Tampa Downtown Partnership and other sponsors is the 2010 ECO.lution. The event's website describes it as "an annual series of community focused interactive events designed to encourage Tampa to make sustainable choices."

ECO.lution begins Thursday, March 25, with ECO.expo, a trade show for sustainable living. ECO.festival follows on Saturday, March 27, and is a street fair with music, food, displays and family-friendly events. Part of ECO.festival will be the 2nd Annual Twilight Criterium, an urban bike racing event. Tampa's night life is featured on Friday, April 2, with Paint the Town GREEN. Participants will get a taste of Tampa's food and beverage options with a tour of restaurants and bars via public transportation.

Beyond the special events to lure people into experiencing downtown Tampa, the goal is to have bona-fide urban dwellers. In that regard, Fritz and Sabia-Fritz are living that life with their 4-year-old daughter Tessa.

"We recently moved from a condo at The Quarter in Ybor City in the historic district," says Fritz, who studied architecture and community design at the University of South Florida and works for an architectural firm.

"We loved the urban lifestyle that Ybor offered and would walk to our favorite coffee shop, Tre Amici, nearly everyday,'' says Fritz. "We now live in Tampa Heights a mile-and-a-half from Ybor and downtown.

"After having our first child in late 2009, we decided more living and work space was desired, but did not want to be far from downtown. It took the right house in the right location to move us out of Ybor. We purchased an historic home, 115 years old, just north of Columbus Drive."

It's a lifestyle that the couple and their Urban Charrette colleagues would like to make possible for others to live.

"We have a lot of potential here but we have to work together to see these things through," Fritz says.

"It's an investment in our future, and if we want to be the city that allows the kind of jobs we want to have here we really have to move forward with livability and sustainability in mind."

Brad Stager is a Temple Terrace-based freelancer employing old school media tools like words, sounds and pictures to create new media content. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.