the city of Tampa convened the first in a series of publicly announced meetings inviting the West Tampa community to weigh in on Mayor Bob Buckhorn's intentions on redeveloping Riverfront Park, the 23-acre green space located on the western side of the Hillsborough River directly across from downtown. It's one element in a larger scheme to make much more out of what is being called "the West Bank" of the river, a plan that has some local citizens concerned about the bigger picture for the neighborhood.
The first such meeting held last month was a relatively amicable affair, as citizens sat in small groups to talk about what they'd like to see in a revamped version of the original park built in 1977.
The conversation got a bit rockier at last night's second held public meeting at Blake High School, however, as plans for a do-over got a little more real. While many spoke in favor of one of the proposed designs, there were also a few citizens who expressed reservations about the whole idea.
The first half-hour of the meeting was informal, with the crowd (which ultimately grew to at least 125 people or so) going to one of the four corners of Blake's cafeteria to examine three different proposals standing next to the current design of the park, all compiled by the Denver-based Civitas group, which the city is paying to lead the planning effort. By far the most popular one appeared to be Design #3, which would construct a boathouse with food concessions on the second floor and perhaps a history center.
"The thing that really stands out is how many different activities people want," said Civitas' Mark Johnson, who took the next half-hour to go over what his team had heard from citizens on the first go-around, and how they were poised to sit back and listen to what they had to say on this evening as well.
He went about describing the three proposals up for consideration. The first would improve and enhance the park with bigger basketball courts and a playground. It would also preserve the most trees. The second would open the park to the river, and include the "urban beach" design propagated by North Hyde Park Alliance president Rob Subsky. That would include more umbrellas, chaise lounges and the like.
The third design would create a new building, a boathouse that would concentrate on physical activities that people could utilize along the water. It garnered the most energy, both positively and at times negatively, during the public comment period.
Some called it "too aggressive," with one unnamed man saying he's actually been in
the Hillsborough River and advised against bringing people close to the water.
Businessman Joe Robinson laid into the Steward's Foundation, which conducts community rowing programs inside the park. He said that they were supposed to help Blake High School create a rowing club, but "it ain't happened."
"They've been bad actors," Robinson continued, maintaining that the group had "breached their contract" with the city.
Many spoke out about how dirty the river was, prompting a later speaker to comment on why nobody had done anything about that.
But the dragon boat racing community came out in full force, and all of those who spoke out did so in support of option #3.
"It encompasses everything from land activities to water activities," said a young woman who identified herself as Geri. She said she and lots of other young people were involved in dragon boating, and strongly said the city should pursue the boathouse option. "If we want to change the community, we cannot change without risking something," she said. Several other dragon boat aficionados followed up with similarly expressed sentiments.
The aforementioned Rob Subsky has already become known as the man who wants to redevelop the park as a freshwater tropical beach, but he didn't find too much enthusiasm in the crowd. "How many have you been down to St. Petersburg or Clearwater to go to the beach?" he asked, as a few right arms went up limply in the air. Subsky has said his inspiration came after visiting a downtown beach similar to his vision when he was in Brisbane, Australia a year ago. He also said he could foresee food trucks and other vendors also being a part of the mix.
But the most acidic response came from Elva Marie Bonser, who blasted Mayor Buckhorn, the Steward's Foundation, Subsky and anything else that came to her mind.
"We don't care what they have in Australia!," she said regarding the beach proposal. "I'm tired of Bob (Buckhorn) creating 'Bob's world,' instead of for the citizens." She then attacked him for contracting out the work to Civitas instead of an indigenous group. "It's a farce, everybody," she said, as many in the audience seemed both slightly appalled and appreciative of Bonser's remarks (and she was not the only one to mention that the city is paying the Denver based group over $708,000
for their work). She also said the city wanted to drive people out of the neighborhood. "Quit wiping out Tampa's history, Bob," she implored, going on for a few more minutes than most people seemed comfortable with.
Moments later, Irma Celestin said she could picture in her mind how "they're going to push out all the people in all the housing. They're going to tear it all down to Columbus Drive on both sides," she said of the plan to redevelop West Tampa. Regarding the fact that she has lived in the area for 25 years, "You have some nice folks. But you do have some wicked, nasty, pure evil people," before segueing into her own issues with city staff. She said if anybody wants to buy out their homes, residents should make sure to "sock it to them" in terms of making a profit.
What Civitas staff has in mind with what to do with Riverfront Park won't be known for a few more months. The next public meeting — also at Blake High- will be when a draft plan is presented on August 12.