Tampa Riverwalk nears completion, connects downtown

Things certainly have come a long way since the Tampa Riverwalk was first conceived as a celebratory Bicentennial project by then-mayor Bill Poe in 1975. The first wooden planks were installed near what is now Curtis Hixon Park a year later. Now, some 40 years and six Tampa mayors later, the Riverwalk is nearing the end of a winding journey toward its long-awaited completion. 

When the Kennedy Boulevard Plaza opens later this week, a continuous 1.8-mile path will invite locals and tourists alike to enjoy waterfront views and unparalleled pedestrian access to downtown landmarks, parks and venues. According to Ali Glisson, Public Affairs Director with the City of Tampa, a final stretch of the Riverwalk linking the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts with the Water Works Park should open in April 2016.

The Riverwalk corridor, which fronts the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel, now affords easy access to many of Tampa’s most popular landmarks, including The Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay History Center, Glazer Children’s Museum, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, the Patel Conservatory and the Straz Center. But it’s much more than a pedestrian link from one attraction to the next. For Tampa, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to infuse art, culture and business along a walkable, bikeable waterfront and connect people with the community.

The next leg of progress, Kennedy Boulevard Plaza, is set to open March 27 at 5pm during a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the most stunning segment of the project to date. 

Additional activities in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park starting at 6pm include a special showing of "Dolphin Tale.” Special guests from Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium will be on hand, and Blue Bell Ice Cream will be serving free cups of hand-dipped ice cream, including its signature Homemade Vanilla flavor.

Locals love the Riverwalk

“The Riverwalk is usually part of my run,” says Personal Trainer Mary Baum. “A standard run for me is five to seven miles, so having the Riverwalk as a place to vary up an out-and-back course is fantastic.” While she would love to see the addition of drinking fountains along the Riverwalk for hydration, she says the interconnected parks already offer “plenty of water fountains along the way.”

As Baum runs on the Riverwalk, Rex Gordon enjoys leisurely strolls along the banks of the Hillsborough. “I walk two to three miles on the Riverwalk at least twice a week and I love it,” says Gordon, who works in retail and is also a Hillsborough High School Alumni Association historian. “It’s being well done and we can finally appreciate the Hillsborough River.” He says his favorite areas of the Riverwalk are by the Tampa Convention Center and Curtis Hixon Park. 

The dynamic Riverwalk is also helping lure cultural events to places like Curtis Hixon Park, where auto insurance Claims Adjuster Tricia Warren often enjoys her Wednesday evenings participating in the weekly Hoola for Happiness Hoop Jam. Describing highlights of her previous trek to the park, she explains, “before hooping there was a free Yoga in the Park event by Bella Prana Yoga.” Warren adds, “there’s always a great event at the Riverwalk and Curtis Hixon Park, lovely people to meet, and a sense of community that’s sorely needed.” 

Stitching the community together

Bringing people closer to the water and connecting them with parks, cultural institutions and downtown landmarks are just a few of the key goals the Riverwalk’s founders and promoters hope to achieve. 

Lawyer Steven A. Anderson, president of the Friends of the Riverwalk, says the unfolding project is changing Tampa’s urban landscape. 

“People love to be near the water, and the Riverwalk not only makes it accessible, but it also enables them to enjoy, recreate, relax and feel good about their lives,” Anderson says. “It brings people outside. It encourages them to enjoy, mingle and explore their city.”

The Friends of the Riverwalk include a large panel of locals who, like Anderson, want to see the city emerge as a shining example of a place where residents can enjoy a rich community experience right in the heart of the urban business district. 

The Board of Directors reads like a “Who’s Who” of local businesses and organizations, including Christine Burdick with the Tampa Downtown Partnership, Bruce Faulmann of the Tampa Bay Times, Rick Hamilton with the Tampa Convention Center, Michael Kilgore from the Columbia Restaurant Group, Mary Scott of the Tampa Marriott Waterside and SunTrust’s Dan Mahurin. 

Keith Greminger, senior planning and urban design manager at Kimley-Horn and Associates, is another of the luminaries aboard the Friends of the Riverwalk. He expects to see the Kennedy Boulevard Plaza stretch introduce more foot traffic to places like Curtis Hixon Park, the Glazer Children’s Museum, the Aloft Tampa Downtown Hotel and Malio’s Prime Steakhouse

“The ability to connect cultural art facilities is amazing and the ability for other startups, restaurants, food and beverage outlets along with wet zoning (the legal ability to serve alcohol) adds a lot,” Greminger observes. 

Getting boaters in on the action

The Riverwalk provides appealing opportunities for boaters, who are often seen meandering up and down the Hillsborough River amid the shimmering shadows of the downtown Tampa skyscrapers and University of Tampa minarets. 

“Tampa has seven waterfront parks, and the Riverwalk connects them all literally and figuratively,” Glisson says. “It facilitates water activities like eBoats, water bikes and paddle boards, which are becoming more and more a part of the downtown scene. It’s also a major draw for visitors and locals.” 

But what does that mean for boaters who want to moor their vessels along the Riverwalk? While the new Kennedy Boulevard segment hovers temptingly low over the east bank of the Hillsborough River, Glisson says that stretch of the Riverwalk is not presently designed for permitting access to or from boats. 

“Areas like Kennedy Plaza and the Brorein and Platt Street Bridge underpasses that are out over the water are not directly accessible by boat, meaning you can’t tie up to the overwater walkway and jump over the railing,” she says. However, gates are being installed on either end of the Kennedy Plaza to accommodate walkways down to floating docks that will be installed in the future for water taxis. 

“Many access points are already available, such as the docks at the Tampa Bay History Center, Cotanchobee Park, the Tampa Convention Center and Curtis Hixon Park,” Glisson adds. “More access points are planned for the Water Works Park area, too.”

In the meantime, those who want to enjoy both surf and turf while visiting the Riverwalk may want to check out eBoats Tampa, an electric boat rental service located at the Tampa Convention Center docks. 

Andrea Dohring, who owns eBoats Tampa with her husband, Josh, is enthusiastic about the positive impact the Riverwalk has had on their business and the downtown area as a whole. 

“The Riverwalk is a lifeline that connects people to the water from downtown’s most northern and southern reaches, and it will increase business for us due to the shift in focus from its tallest buildings to the waterway being downtown’s epicenter,” she says. “Energy attracts like energy, so there will be more businesses that cater specifically to waterfront activities.” 

Anderson, speaking for the Friends of the Riverwalk, says “the consensus is that more boat docks would be great. It is on our list of amenities needed to make the Riverwalk more accessible and fun.”  

Greminger confirms that Ulele, operated by the Columbia Restaurant Group, is working with engineers to install docking facilities near the popular eatery that opened last August.

Build it and they will come

“Can you say ‘Ulele,’ ‘500 waterfront events annually’ or ‘the Sail’?” Anderson asks. Those are just a few of his prime examples of the myriad business opportunities the Riverwalk supports. 

He also references Jeff Vinik’s plans to develop land in the Channel District and the newer e-boat, water bike and paddleboard rental venues. 

“The Riverwalk is just one piece of the puzzle that is making Tampa a desirable place to work, live and play,” he says. “But it is a very important piece that makes visitors and [those deciding] potential business relocations say, ‘Tampa is so much more than I ever knew – what a great place to live!’”

Eric Blanc, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Tampa Convention Center, believes the Riverwalk has been pivotal to expanding business at The Sail (formerly the Sail Pavilion) and helping the waterfront bar become a local destination for downtown neighborhoods along the path. 

“We believe that The Sail serves as an example of how successful businesses can exist along Tampa’s waterfront and we expect to see the activities and venues grow along the waterfront over the next few years,” he comments. 

It’s presently unclear precisely how much impact the Riverwalk has had on the local economy in terms of dollars and cents. 

But what is certain is this – business is booming along the riverfront, and the Riverwalk is helping drive more commerce closer to the Hillsborough River, as business owners like Dohring notice. 

“To date the use of public spaces, such as Water Works, Curtis Hixon and the area in front of the Tampa Convention Center creates effective gathering sites along the Riverwalk,” she says. “More residences, cultural displays, restaurants, shops, events and vendors will encourage private enterprises and entrepreneurs to cater to the needs of the Riverwalk’s users.” 

Looking toward the future

Glisson reports the final city segment of the Riverwalk, the Doyle Carlton stretch, is slated to break ground next month, if all goes according to schedule. 

“That will extend the Riverwalk to the other side of Water Works Park,’’ adding a 2,050-foot phase that will create a continuous 2.2-mile path, she says. “The final segment from Water Works Park to the North Boulevard Bridge will be completed by the Heights developer and that timetable has not been determined.” 

About 70 percent of the necessary funding for the Kennedy and Carlton segments comes from a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) IV grant. These funds support not just the design of the Riverwalk, largely provided by Tampa firm Moffat & Nichol Engineers, but also its construction; Johnson Brothers, LLC built the Brorein and Kennedy stretches, though no contractor has been named yet for the Carlton segment.

Glisson says the building and physical construction of the Riverwalk are “incredibly important” components of the project as a whole. “Equally as important is how we can program the parks and public spaces adjacent to the Riverwalk and activate the area through efforts like public art and providing free Wi-Fi along the entire length of [the trail] and in waterfront parks.” 

Dohring, meanwhile, believes an important part of planning for the future means helping to protect the environment around the waterfront. That’s part of the appeal behind electronic boats, which are eco-sensitive. 

“Just like the healthy activities the Riverwalk encourages, our business strives to provide the best way to explore, enjoy and navigate the waterways without polluting the area with noisy engines, gas fumes and oil,” she says.   

While there’s still much work left to be done, the Riverwalk already receives incredible reviews from people who take the time to use it. 

“I really love [the Riverwalk],’’ says runner Baum. “It’s an amazing asset for the city of Tampa to connect very fun places by just lacing up your sneakers.”

Riverwalk by the numbers 
  • 1.8 – The number of miles the Riverwalk will stretch once the Kennedy Boulevard segment opens.
  • 2.2 – In miles, the total length of the Riverwalk once the Doyle Carlton stretch linking the Straz Center to Water Works Park opens sometime next year.
  • 2.6 – How long, in miles, the Riverwalk will be once it links the North Boulevard Bridge to Port Tampa Bay. 
  • 18 – How many bronze and marble busts are currently located along the Riverwalk’s Historical Monument Trail honoring important local figures from the past.
  • 54 – The percentage of funds used to build the Riverwalk that comes from federal and state grants.
  • 41 — The percentage of funds that comes from the city.
  • 5 — The percentage from private donations.
  • 1,450 – The length in feet of the Kennedy Boulevard segment opening in March 2015.
  • 1975 – The year Mayor Bill Poe proposed the Riverwalk.
  • 2016 – The year the city of Tampa expects to complete the Doyle Carlton segment, which is the last stretch to be built by the city.
  • 2,050 – How many feet the Doyle Carlton segment will measure.
  • 4,333 – How many cubic yards of concrete were used during the Riverwalk’s construction.
  • 33 million – The total dollars invested in the Tampa Riverwalk since its inception 40 years ago. 
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.