Master plan envisions grand design for Straz Center on riverfront

The Straz is taking its rightful place at center stage in the revitalization of downtown Tampa in unveiling preliminary master plan concepts for renovation and expansion.  

Though everyone involved cautions that these are just “early ideas,” the plan nonetheless provides a doable path toward concrete renderings and a three-dimensional model that will be delivered in late May.  

The plan envisions the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts at the heart of an engaging integration of the Riverwalk, with an “arrival sequence” starting at Ashley Drive and its reach extending past the Tampa Museum of Art and into the river itself via a dramatic floating pavilion. 

The overall goal: transforming the Straz into a destination beyond the attractions of the performing arts and thus making the Straz into one of the city’s prime social centers.

Good timing, great context

The Residences at the Riverwalk, a 36-story residential tower scheduled to break ground later this year with completion slated for the end of 2016, will become an intimate neighbor of the Straz. The developers paid the City $4 million for the land and some of that money will go toward reconfiguring Cass and Tyler streets, which also figure into the new Straz master plan. 

Add in private development plans for the waterfront in the Channel District and the nearing completion of the Tampa Riverwalk, and the project folds neatly in with the City’s overall plans for downtown development.  

“Energizing, populating and activating the area is only going to be good for the Riverwalk and for the Straz,” says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “Tampa has transformed itself and as the river becomes a focal point for everything we do, the Straz wants to be part of that,” he adds, noting that the  timing “is right to launch a capital campaign.”

Getting to the next level

Keeping in line with the founding crafters of the Straz Center who put Tampa on the map 28 years ago with what remains a state-of-the-art aesthetic for a beautiful cultural arts center, Straz Center CEO Judy Lisi says it’s her job to “carry on this vision.” 

Faced with the need to expand the Patel Conservatory, growing demands for increased dining experiences and a realization that the Straz is not taking full advantage of its location and surroundings, the idea for taking the aesthetic to a new level began to form.
After a “very vigorous, competitive process” New York-based Paul Westlake was chosen among three finalists to design the master plan. Lisi says Westlake “really inspired us to see what could happen here.” 

The master plan design team is actually an alliance of two firms – Westlake Reed Leskosky and Hargreaves, which specializes in landscapes. The master plan is being funded by a $245,000 donation from the Duckwall Foundation.

Where there’s light, there’s action  

The plan’s scope is highly ambitious – from floating sustainable LED-lit extensions of the Riverwalk to a possible sculpture garden to creating several dining venues on the river. The pavilion-island could serve as a focal point and a platform for a large sculpture that will play an important role in visually communicating the Straz cultural arts identity. 

Perhaps the most exciting concept is that the vision does not just look at pleasing ticketholders. Instead it opens up the Straz dramatically to the public, injecting the concept of nightlife on the Hillsborough River and incorporating the industrial urbanscape of the iron bridges and railroad that border its real estate as a backdrop for the restaurants and walkways. During the day, ice cream shops and cafés in stroller-friendly zones would be attractive to families. The idea, says Lisi is “a cultural center that millennials and their families will be comfortable in.” 

Thanks to the strength of the original design of the facility and to continuous capital improvements over the years, the theater facilities are “still superb.” The Conservatory expansion will be addressed by relocating the administrative offices currently housed in the same building.

Launching a capital campaign  

Straz COO Lorrin Shepard, local project leader of the master plan, notes that needs studies have shown the Straz is missing out on $1 million a year in unmet food and beverage opportunities because there is simply no space to meet the demand.

In addition to creating a social center, the riverfront restaurants will address this demand in part. Westlake notes there could be 3-4 seatings, including early diners entering the Straz before performances, primetime diners before and during showtimes and the after-show crowd that likes to stop in for dessert or a drink. 

Additional proposed new spaces include a grand terrace that could accommodate up to 2,000 people for private events or festivals or Straz programs. The terrace could be entirely covered under a “light gauzy-like enclosure.” The plan is to create an underground parking garage for 100 cars underneath the event space.  

Westlake/Hargreaves and the Straz team are already busy juggling meeting with consultants from maritime engineering to parking experts. Once the design renderings and 3D models are in place end of May, the fun and the fundraising can begin. 

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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