Below the dam, the Hillsborough River is another world, one that is still relatively lush and peaceful but increasingly urbanized. The gators and turtles are gone.
To travel this section of the river, I get aboard the Lowry Park Zoo's pontoon boat along with about 50 other people on a tour headed to the annual "State of the River" address at the Tampa Convention Center.
The river-savvy folks on the boat are calling this a "kumbaya" year, one of great celebration after years of battles and compromises over various problems with the river. The reason is a years-in-the-making agreement to provide a minimum flow of water over the dam and into the Lower Hillsborough River, to provide more oxygen to its waters, flushing the encroaching seawater back toward the mouth and restoring some of the fish, bird and native plant populations.
The agreement came, in large part, thanks to the midwifery of Alan Wright, a Planning Commission staffer whose vocation and passion was fighting for the river. It is bittersweet to see the positive changes on the Lower Hillsborough so soon after Wright's untimely death in December at age 54, after a long battle with cancer.
Because of the increased flow over the dam, the river is already seeing changes for the better.
"This river is being reborn this spring," says the Sierra Club's Phil Compton, who is on the boat tour.
Few Tampa residents are aware of it, and few even know what a great recreational resource the Lower Hillsborough River is, mainly because it is hidden in plain sight. Few public parks or major roadways can be seen from the river.
Instead, from about the Lowry Park Zoo boat ramp on down, you mostly see a smattering of homes, some old and ramshackle, some of the McMansion variety. Certain city officials want to discourage the mega-mansions, and instead envision development that is more in scale with the gently sloping banks of the Hillsborough.
"We don't want three stories of cement block," says Linda Saul-Sena, a Tampa City Council member who is on the boat ride and who is a strong advocate for the river's restoration.
The river here appears slow-moving, the same tannin-stained brown as upriver. And it is narrower than you'd expect, an easy 1-minute swim across in most spots -- which you could try if you had a current gamma globulin shot. But river advocates agree that it is getting cleaner and fresher (rather than salty).
We quickly pass by a number of modest homes before going under the Sligh Avenue bridge, an almost unobtrusive span that gives you a marvelous view of a typical section of the Lower Hillsborough. The river is aswirl with contradictions: stately older homes sit next to structures that are falling apart. New docks are followed by rotted wood structures that seem barely sturdy enough to support an osprey picking at a fish. And throughout is the strange sense of urban peace; you don't hear cars and trucks even though we're never out of sight of a street.
The Jean Street Shipyard is a revelation, a facility announced only by its name on a blue boat winch and a few boats up on concrete blocks. Having lived in Tampa Bay for more than two decades, I've never heard of this place, which was founded in 1843 and played a role in Civil War history. (According to historical accounts of the Hillsborough River Raid, 100 Union troops attacked the shipyard where two Confederate blockade runners were having barnacles scraped off their hulls.) Today, the shipyard specializes in wooden boat repairs.
We continue downriver and see bigger and bigger homes, some historic, others newer and up on stilts to avoid river flooding. We also begin to notice the many improvements that the city is undertaking along the banks of the Lower Hillsborough. We spot: a storm filter, a large concrete box that traps and filters urban runoff before it hits the river; a restoration project at a small city park featuring large earth-moving machinery scraping the former seawall down to create a natural, vegetation-lined shore; and numerous houses where natural vegetation has likewise replaced sea walls or rip-rap to make a more environmentally friendly setting for marine life.
We round a bend in the river, and, just beyond the aging Columbus Avenue Bridge, we see the downtown Tampa skyline for the first time on this voyage. From here on out, there are fewer overhanging oaks and more signs of urbanity. A grill underneath a bridge and scattered belongings testify to a make-do homeless shelter. Docks become more prevalent. The river's best-known (if not its only) bar and restaurant, Rick's on the River, is just off the starboard side. We begin to see more Jet Skis and powerboats with bikini-clad women waving at us.
It's a pleasant surprise to see the relative lack of boat traffic on the river, but it's also disappointing that so few people take advantage of its natural beauty. Truth is, however, that there are only a few boat ramps, with Lowry Park being the only one that can handle larger vessels, and almost no marina facilities to purchase fuel. It's not until you reach the Marjorie Basin on Davis Islands that you can find gas for your engine.
City leaders and private businesses want to change that, make the river more accessible and boater-friendly. Part of the rebirth of the river, in fact, is tied to a project just coming up around a bend near downtown: The Heights. Wrapped around Water Works Park and a former TECO trolley shed, the eco-friendly community of homes and businesses will connect to downtown along the Riverwalk, the legacy project of Mayor Pam Iorio.
The Heights development manager, Darren Booth, is aboard the tour boat and says the first construction at the site, a commercial building on the edge of Water Works Park, could break ground as early as July or August. The developers are looking to create a signature restaurant in the former pump house at the park -- Tampa's version of Tavern on the Green, as he puts it. Linked to downtown and within easy walking distance of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, The Heights could spur a river renaissance.
The hope and vision of The Heights is one thing; the current reality -- large empty fields, uninviting seawalls and urban decay -- is another as we pass by on our way underneath the I-275 bridges. Tampa didn't treasure its waterfront the way that St. Petersburg did; the Hillsborough was a commercial shipping corridor before the postwar building boom saw it walled off by skyscrapers. Iorio's Riverwalk is an attempt to un-ring that bell as much as possible.
We pass beneath the downtown bridges -- Cass Street, Kennedy Boulevard -- right behind the Hillsborough High School crew team as they scull out into the channels beyond downtown. The crew team graffiti on the bridges' concrete bases attests to the popularity of the river among collegians from colder climes who practice here when their waters are frozen over.
Just past the Brorein Street bridge, we enter the shipping channels that separate Harbour Island and Davis Islands from downtown and end our journey. The river echoes that strange blend of the untouched wild and spoiled urban landscapes that is so typically Florida. With the changes underway to restore the Hillsborough from top to bottom, the river is poised to play an even greater role in defining life in Tampa Bay.
Thanks, Big Dan.
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