As Tampa’s main corridor, connecting Downtown and Westshore, Kennedy Boulevard is an aesthetic adolescent. The City of Tampa has tried parental guidelines, encouraging a grand boulevard of well-designed buildings next to wide, brick-bordered sidewalks lined with trees and cafes. But like a teenager trying out different personas, the individual properties along the boulevard manifest a wide variety of responses to the city’s Kennedy Boulevard Overlay District guidelines, ranging from elegant adaptation to sullen disregard.
The Walker Brands Building and Oxford Exchange are the poster children for great design that follows the rules. Different as night and day, both wield the power of stunning architecture.
The Walker Brands Building is a crisp, modern cube with fabulous windows facing onto the street, allowing passersby a view of a colorful, Calderesque 20-foot mobile. The LEED Gold structure is both stunning and energy-efficient, with rich floors made of recycled wood, open work vistas, bicycle parking and a vivid, sculptural birdhouse.
Unfortunately, this high standard of urban design is not sustained by its neighbor. The Primrose School, under construction to the east, is a schmaltzy suburban style featuring a pitched roof that screams Little House on the Prairie. The first two schools in this franchise are located in Tampa Palms and Cross Creek, where they fit in perfectly.
School owner Rick Radke complains that the city staff “forced us to make the front door face onto Kennedy” and required an urban edge on an accessory structure to parallel the street, but the suburban template is obvious. The design is certainly not worthy of a central boulevard, lacking the dignity, mass and materials reflected in the city’s overlay drawings.
The best thing about Tampa General Hospital’s proposed rehab center at Willow and Kennedy is that its fate is in limbo while the new CEO settles in. Great concept, mediocre plan. The approved site plan has a minimal building edge facing Kennedy with the main structure set way back, approached by a ceremonial driveway. Better than the originally proposed sea of asphalt, but still a suburban solution.
TGH has a great opportunity to distinguish this 533,000-square-foot project by hiring a terrific architect who recognizes the high profile this site affords. The community deserves a stellar design that respects the overlay plans’ directive for an urban edge and direct pedestrian connections from the street to the buildings.
The Award for “Least Appropriate New Construction on a Grand Boulevard” goes to the University of Tampa’s lacrosse field with its black mesh net and series of stark light poles. This is a fine facility, but it has no business being placed on Kennedy. What were they thinking? A dreadful design choice …
In 2011, UT came to the city with a long list of variance requests to deviate from the Kennedy overlay plan guidelines. Their wish list was long, asking for (among other things) tree removal and the vacating of Edison Street. Unfortunately, the public hearing on the requests, which encompassed 90 acres immediately west of downtown, flooded attendees with a tsunami of information. Tampa City Council members were swept away in the minutiae and approved UT’s variances, rather than holding the university’s feet to the fire and directing them to come back with better plans. The city staff needs to point out the potential problems more vigorously so that the overlay plan (which, full disclosure, I helped create in 2008 when I was on Council) is adhered to explicitly.
One of UT’s requests was to site its new dorm with the grand entrance on the side, rather than on Kennedy. The impulse to direct all things UT toward the center of campus, rather than opening up to the community and engaging the students with their urban setting, strikes me as a lost opportunity for broadening the students’ experience. Contrast that attitude with the Savannah College of Art and Design, SCAD, which integrates its buildings throughout their downtown, creating a win-win scenario for the students as well as the townspeople.
I asked Eric Kreher, the architect for the 11-story dorm, why the university was turning its back to the street. He responded with his own question, “Why would students want to walk down Kennedy?”
That attitude is precisely the challenge.
The row of chic shops facing the UT campus — the enticing Baisden Art Gallery, sophisticated Mise en Place and multi-faceted Oxford Exchange — answer that question with gusto. Another Kennedy Boulevard point of charm is Buddy Brew Coffee up near Howard Avenue. Intense young people huddled over their computers, intoxicated by the heady scent of fresh-roasted beans, fill this high-tech, high-touch shop and spill onto the outdoor seating. Owner Susan Ward said that she is happy to have two locations on Kennedy Boulevard, and marvels at the changes which have taken place in only three years, now that she’s enjoying independent businesses, design and branding agencies as neighbors.
So … will the independent businesses carry the day? Or will the boulevard sink into nondescript generica? Kennedy Boulevard has amazing potential to evolve into a true urban, walkable corridor. I’m resigned to the fact that it’s impossible to legislate beauty. But we can celebrate the folks who get it right by patronizing their establishments — that is one step toward helping Kennedy grow the way it should.
The opportunity exists for TGH and UT to use their vast empty parcels for better design. And that would be a genuine step into maturity.
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