Walking on Westshore 

Can a new master plan shift the focus from drivers to pedestrians?

Built in the 1960s, the Westshore Business District adhered to a simplistic development pattern characteristic of the time: Cars dictated everything about the design, with no consideration of aesthetics. The result: a sea of asphalt bordered by a series of architecturally uninspiring boxes marching northward along Westshore Boulevard and low strip centers along Kennedy Boulevard.

The innovative expansion of Tampa International Airport in the late ’60s sparked hotel and commercial growth. With the openings of WestShore Plaza in 1967 and, much later, International Plaza (built on the site of an old golf course in 2001), a strictly car-dominated suburban business district morphed into an area in which over 5,000 apartments and upscale condos have been built or are in development.

As the number of apartments and condos multiply, people increasingly seek the option of walking or bicycling. Rush hour traffic misery chills the thrill of your office-with-a-lovely-view unless you have a choice like living close enough to be able to walk or bike to work, or have access to transit. Business travelers and tourists do not want Orlando-esque traffic to keep them from crossing the street for a meal or shopping. Making life easier for walkers and bicyclists ultimately improves the value of the real estate.

Fortunately, the entire Westshore District is about to embrace the radical premise that pedestrians and bicyclists, green space and public art, are all important to the area’s evolution. The Westshore Alliance has hired USF architecture professor Trent Green and his graduate students to develop a master plan, one that not only anticipates the creation of a multi-modal transportation hub but could shape decision-making about urban design for the next 25 years.

“The focus of this plan,” says Green, “is to create a framework that will transform Westshore into a walkable, pedestrian area.”

And he’s not just talking about the two boulevards. The study area for the Westshore Master Plan extends as far as International Plaza and the Home Depot/Target/Whole Foods complex on Dale Mabry.

Ron Rotella, longtime executive director of the Westshore Alliance, has promised surrounding neighborhoods that they will have a voice in shaping the master plan. A series of meetings will be held in February to solicit ideas and comments, with the final version showing up at Tampa City Council for approval in April.

He envisions Westshore as a grand boulevard, putting the portion south of I-275 on a “Road Diet” with extra pavement given to bike lanes and/or sidewalks. “We’ve completed the private sector plan which requires an ‘urban edge,’ building fronts right on the sidewalk such as the new Florida Blue offices and Chase Bank. Now, the time has arrived to plan the public realm.”

“We’re 25 years past due,” wryly commented Joe Toph, the architect/principal of Urban Order/Tampa. He was a vocal proponent of establishing design standards back in the late 1980s. He argued that Kennedy Boulevard should be the organizing structure for Tampa’s urban form — that you should be able to walk into a building from a door facing the sidewalk.

Toph can point to his own work to show the impact of architectural standards. Call it A Tale of Two Starbucks. He designed two outlets of the ubiquitous coffee chain for the same client. One of them, the Hyde Park location on South Howard, has a generous outdoor cafe space on a wide sidewalk. The other — on Westshore Boulevard — fronts onto a road-facing parking lot and features a drive-through.

The reason the two are so different from one another? The design rules for Hyde Park insisted upon the public space in front. And the result, as every coffee fiend, gym rat and casual passerby in South Tampa knows, is that the SoHo Starbucks became a highly visible, near-iconic hangout, one that took full advantage of the coffeehouse’s potential as a “third place” — not work, not home, just a comfortable place to be.

The Westshore location, on the other hand, is all about the car.

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