The remaking of Tampa's Riverfront Park begins

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Civitas president Mark Johnson listens to the thoughts about what Riverfront Park needs at one table at Blake High School on Tuesday night
  • Civitas president Mark Johnson listens to the thoughts about what Riverfront Park needs at one table at Blake High School on Tuesday night

Although virtually everyone is familiar with Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa, surprisingly few know about Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, located north of the University of Tampa campus, on the western side of the Hillsborough River. But people in the immediate West Tampa neighborhood are quite familiar with the 23-acre park built in 1977 that no one would dispute needs lots of work to become a destination once again.

So as part of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's ambitious plans to redevelop the west bank portion of the River, the city has hired Denver-based group Civitas to lead the planning effort. Though officials with the group say they have already held separate meetings with around 40 local individuals and groups to get their sense of what they'd like the park to become, Tuesday night was the first publicly held meeting to gather the thoughts of the community about how to reinterpret the area.

"This was a park that needed help," Buckhorn told the crowd that looked to be at least 150-200 people strong gathered in Blake High School's cafeteria. "This was a park that had very few amenities, no lighting, no modern equipment for seniors. It was a piece of green space that sat there and sat there, but we decided to do something about it." He went on to say it was important that the park open itself more to the water and become more "user-friendly," in particular for young people.
Mark Johnson, the president of Civitas, said he's learned through earlier conversations with community members that many had no idea that the park even existed. "They thought it was part of Tampa Prep or the University of Tampa. We found that to be very revealing," he said, adding that the park "has a tendency" to isolate activities from one side to another. (Mayor Buckhorn earlier stressed that this Civitas group should not be confused with the controversial Civitas proposal promulgated by Ed Turanchik and shot down by the County Commission a decade ago).

The Civitas staff made up cards of various ideas that could be implemented in a new Riverfront Park. Those cards were distributed to individual groups at the various tables scattered around the cafeteria, with participants then given dots to place on those cards — green for positive, red for negative. Among the ideas on those cards include rollerblading, terraced skating, hammock grove, park gateway, water access, community center, dragon boats, kayak launches, and many, many others.

Rob Subsky, President of the North Hyde Park Alliance, was ubiquitous before the meeting, handing out a six-page document that calls for making the park into a freshwater tropical beach, with an attached description of what he says would be the model, a beach in Brisbane, Australia.  "Why should our citizens and tourists leave Tampa for a day at the beach," his flier read. "We could all walk, bike and boat to a beautiful beach on the river with the Tampa skyline, the Straz Center, and all the upcoming river enjoyment in our front view."

This particular reporter sat at a table where the conversation was steeped in nostalgia by folks who remember the park from decades before, when security concerns weren't as paramount as they are now. Le Bronn Reddick said something needed to be done about security. "It's about time they do something — there's never been ample security there."

That led to a discussion about how that might be implemented without creating a heavy-handed law enforcement presence in the park.

Community advocate Fred Hearns said he wanted to ensure that the history of the community was preserved in the park. "We need to do something to bring back the recognition of the northern edge of the park," he said, adding that the city should create a Phillips Field in the park. Before it was torn down, Phillips Field was the home of the University of Tampa Spartans football team, as well as the site for the Middleton and Blake High Schools' football squads, and even Florida A&M.

"I want to emphasize that we have nothing in this immediate area," said Harriet Scott, who said the park needs a recreation center."We need something with a 500-person capacity for families to use, for neighborhood association meetings."

Earlier in the day, Mayor Buckhorn told CL that he hopes to begin construction of a new park within the year, with money currently set aside for the first phase of reconstruction. "But this community engagement part is really the foundation upon which it will be built," he said.

There are three more meetings with the community planned over the summer, with the next scheduled for June 10, with a final meeting scheduled for Sept 9, all at Blake High.

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