Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Consensus forming on Riverfront Park redesign?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 13, 2014 at 11:13 AM

click to enlarge West Tampa residents check plans for the Riverfront Park design
  • West Tampa residents check plans for the Riverfront Park design

With just one more public meeting scheduled regarding the redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in West Tampa, a clearer picture about what the new park will look like is emerging.

"What we think we're hearing is that people want this to be a community park for families, kids, picnicking, walking in the park with shade, plenty of places to sit and look at the river," explained Mark Johnson, president of the Denver-based group Civitas, who conducted the meeting at Blake High School Tuesday night. Civitas won the bid to help the city's redesign of the park, originally built in 1977. The reconfiguration — slated to cost $8 million — is part of Mayor Bob Buckhorn's greater plans to redevelop what is being called "the west bank." That's the area immediately west of the Hillsborough River, in the middle of the city.

Johnson added that there would also be revamped basketball and tennis courts, a multi-use sports field (with artificial turf), and a two-story "river center" with a community center on the top floor and a a boathouse on the ground level, where people could rent a kayak, canoe or dragonboat. There would also be docks for motorboats, and a floating dock as well for paddleboards or canoes. And the nonprofits Boys & Girls Club and Stewards Foundation would remain on the site.
The reviews were relatively positive coming from the approximately 100 people in attendance, many from the black community, which as a whole has urged Civitas to maintain the history of the park. The new design also includes a History Walk in the middle of the park, which will include chairs, benches, gardens and references to historical figures either with plaques or statues. "The memories of the community are placed here," Johnson said.

"I'm glad you're listening to the people," local historian Fred Hearns told Johnson. He suggested that the multi-use field be named Phillips Field, the former name of the gridiron in the park that was the only place where black high school teams could play back in the day. He also suggested that the Laurel Street Bridge in the park be renamed in honor of Madame Fortune Taylor, a former slave for whom the bridge was originally named before I-275 cut up the neighborhood.

And Hearns said it was crucial that the man the park was named for, former Tampa Mayor Julian B. Lane, not be forgotten in the redesign. "He had the guts to stand up to the segregationists," he said, noting that there should be recognition for him somewhere along the History Walk. 

In addition to redeveloping Riverfront Park, Mayor Buckhorn's InVision plan also calls for demolishing North Boulevard Homes, a public housing complex built in 1940. But there is some opposition to that in the community, something that Andre Hill alluded to while also saying that he agreed with Hearns' suggestions on honoring the past. "We're going to make sure that those children in North Blvd. come back," he said about the fact that those in public housing will be relocated until new quarters are built. "You're not going to send us out to Suitcase City."

Not everyone is in love with the new design. A young man named Chris called the plan too "two-dimensional." He also criticized the plan to add about 100 more parking spots inside the park (currently it has parking for 120 spots). 

But neighborhood activist Joe Robinson (and a few others) insisted that adding 100 more parking spots would be vastly insufficient. And Robinson seemed to be speaking for a lot of people when he lashed out at the nonprofit Stewards Foundation, which runs a rowing program in the park and would be housed in the community center. The group has failed to live up to the terms of its long-term lease with the city, which mandated that they build a boathouse by 2011, complete with storage and sleeping quarters for visiting crew teams.

"Are they in default? And if they're in default, why hasn't the (Buckhorn) administration taken some action to get rid of them?" he asked to applause and some cheers from others in the room. He said that they shouldn't be allowed to be part of the new concept. "I think they're trying to piggyback on community sympathy," Robinson added. "Why the hell should they be part of if they didn't do what they're supposed to do?"

There will be one final meeting with the public. That will take place on September 9 at 6 p.m.

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