What will it take to restore Kiley Garden in Downtown Tampa?

Described as "the greatest piece of American landscape architecture from the 1980s'' by one professor of architecture, local urbanites are beginning to shine a light on downtown Tampa’s iconic Kiley Garden in  hopes of eventually bringing it back to its full glory.

Built on the rooftop of a two-story underground parking garage next to the round 454-foot Rivergate Tower on Ashley Drive, the building and the complex of gardens were designed by the late-architect Harry Wolf and landscape architect Dan Kiley on the Fibonacci mathematical sequence to lay out its checkerboard pattern. The landscape creation included 800 white and purple crape myrtle trees, five palm allees, water features, seating cubes, concrete panels, and a plexiglass-bottomed canal.

The threat of lawsuits from a tiny portion of the garden leaking through to the garage below prompted the City of Tampa to dismantle Kiley Garden, chain-sawing the trees and removing water features, eventually replacing the waterproofing and heavy soil. What remains today is grass and concrete strips next to The Tampa Riverwalk.

Wolf, who now lives in Portugal, says he cried when he heard what the city had done to Kiley’s masterpiece back in 2006.

“The whole South Florida landscape community was up in arms,” he says. “The city destroyed an asset that benefitted all of the citizens and they did it for made-up reasons, not reality.” One structural beam moved and tore the waterproofing. It was not like water was flooding into the parking garage, he says.

The Friends of Kiley Garden formed a few years later and worked to bring the park back but weren’t able to gain enough public support and financial traction before the 2008-2009 recession hit and the effort stalled.
With all that in the past, the movement to restore Kiley Garden, comprised of 28 little gardens in a mathematical pattern, is gaining momentum once again.

“We are at the ‘raising public awareness’ phase,” says Linda Saul-Sena, an urban planner and former city council member who is leading the latest charge to restore Kiley Garden. “We are starting at the beginning because so many people have moved to Tampa since the garden was created.”

History lesson

Nation’s Bank, which commissioned the stand-out round skyscraper at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive, spent $150 million on the structures and gardens, on the spot considered “the 100% corner” in downtown Tampa, or as Saul-Sena calls it, “the belly button, the most central part of downtown.”

The garden was magnificent, she says, “but it leaked.” The Bank initially maintained the park but eventually turned it over to the city.
“It was not a mow-and-blow job,” she says. “It is sophisticated, and the city was not able to maintain it properly. It fell into disrepair and the trees were tipping over.”

That, says Wolf, is because the city turned off the irrigation system and the garden began to die. The city removed everything on the surface level, including the concrete patterns, but kept copious notes about what was there.

The city put down a new layer of waterproofing and reinstalled the concrete pieces and the grass, but not the crape myrtle trees or fountains. The crew replaced the heavy soil with a vermiculite mixture to reduce the weight burden.

Time to move forward

With some 5,000 downtown residents and several public spaces, the tenor and culture of downtown Tampa have shifted to an actual urban center over the last decade, Saul-Sena says. The time is right to restore the garden, she adds.

She, Jessie Stehlik, and others revived the Friends of Kiley Garden under the American Institute of Architects-Tampa Bay, and the not-for-profit Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design. The initial plan is to bring an exhibition to Tampa in April 2022 created by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an exhibit meant to bring awareness to important landscape and protect it.

“Every other community and municipality has maintained the excellence of Dan Kiley’s designs except Tampa,” Saul-Sena says. “We are trying to help Tampa understand what a marvelous gift it is that we have this extraordinary garden and that we need to invest in it and maintain it.”

There will need to be a structural analysis before the trees can be reinstalled. The extraordinary fountains that were once part of the garden will be a project down the road. Saul-Sena is hoping the city will back a plan to get the park designated an historic property making it eligible for grant money to help with its restoration.

Wolf says he believes the city should be heavily involved in funding the garden’s rehabilitation. “It’s very clear the city destroyed it.”

Others agree now is the time.

“Our neighborhood includes Kiley Garden and I was around in the late 1980s when it was built,” says Dan Traugott, president of DRANA, the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association. “The only word I can use to describe it was ‘magical.’ It was a magical place. To restore it to what it once was is the best route, rather than trying to re-envision it. The design still holds up as a modern one.”

He says he would eventually like to see the fountains and stream restored. “I know it is a huge undertaking, but maybe that can be the second phase.”

Traugott says his organization, which has 53 card-carrying members and several hundred supporters, fully backs the plan to restore the garden.

For now, the best thing supporters can do is donate, Saul-Sena says. The Friends group has held two fundraising cocktail parties so far and more efforts are in the works.

To learn more, listen to Stehlik and Saul-Sena talk about their efforts to revive Kiley Garden during a Cafe con Tampa program.
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Read more articles by Yvette C. Hammett.

Yvette C. Hammett, a native Floridian and a graduate of the University of Florida, has spent much of her career as a professional journalist covering business, the environment, and local features throughout the Tampa Bay Area. She is an avid camper and outdoors person who has also been involved in local events for foster children and the elderly.