Tampa to get dedicated Pickleball courts in new waterfront park

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s $35.5 million legacy project at Riverfront Park moves ahead

TAMPA — A massive waterfront park project that more than anything else may be Bob Buckhorn’s legacy as mayor has won the strong endorsement of the City Council.

The council voted 6-1 on Thursday to spend $35.5 million to remake Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, 23 all-but-forgotten acres just across the Hillsborough River from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

“This is a great opportunity,” said City Council member Frank Reddick, who represents the West Tampa area where the park is located. “Yes, $35 million is a lot of money, but if you look at the last 20 years, when not one dollar was invested in that area, then that community deserves the type of money that’s being invested.”

But for council member Lisa Montelione, the lone nay vote, $35 million was excessive, especially because over the past seven years the city has spent a similar amount on three urban parks — Curtis Hixon Waterfront, Perry Harvey Sr. and Water Works — that are all within a mile and a half of Riverfront.

“This is too expensive,” said Montelione, who said her north and New Tampa district covers more land than any other, but has just six city parks, and “I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get improvements.”

Turning out in favor of the project were more than 20 business and civic leaders from the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Straz Center, Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa Jewish Community Center, Tampa Housing Authority, Tampa Downtown Partnership and the nearby Heights development.

“It’s a lot of money — we know it’s a lot of money — but it’s so needed,” Davis Islands resident Vincent Palori said. “This is the heart of our community.”

Four residents spoke against the proposal. Three from the North Hyde Park Civic Association said they didn’t oppose the project but said its budget included $711,000 that had been set aside to create green space in their neighborhood.

“The money that I feel was designated for our neighborhood should stay in our neighborhood,” civic association president Brenda Lindsay said.

Buckhorn has invested years of time and political capital in the project, which he described as “the largest amount of money that’s ever been invested in West Tampa.” And unlike the Riverwalk or other downtown parks, which involved one or more previous mayors, the vision for Riverfront Park is Buckhorn’s alone.

“This is a project that will have generational impact,” the mayor said after the vote. “I want the river to be the center of our urban experience.”

When he came into office, there was a plan to add softball fields and other modest improvements to Riverfront Park.

Buckhorn discarded that in favor of a much more sweeping and ambitious plan.

The cost of that plan, crafted after a series of large community meetings at Blake High School, rose several times from an initial estimate of $20 million-plus.

Buckhorn tried to persuade the Florida Legislature to put $5 million in state funds into the project and was undaunted when they declined.

Riverfront Park is about four times as big as Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, but Buckhorn said the amount of general revenue going into the project is comparable to what was spent seven years ago to reconfigure Curtis Hixon.

That’s because the city plans to spend $15 million of the $20 million in BP money it received after settling its lawsuit over lost tourism revenues after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Most of the rest of the money needed will come from the Community Investment Tax, a voter-approved half-cent added to Hills­borough County’s sales tax to pay for schools, roads and projects that include Raymond James Stadium.

With the council’s approval, Skanska USA Building will start construction in the coming months. The project is expected to take about 18 months.

When the new park opens in the fall of 2017, gone will be its 1970s-era earthen mounds designed by Richard Dattner, a New York architect known for creating unconventional spaces that encourage adventurous play. Despite their architectural pedigree, Buckhorn hates them calls them “alien space mounds.”

In their place will be:

• A new river center with a community room, a large shaded deck, storage for rowing shells and dragon boats, a public dock, paddleboard rentals, a riverfront promenade and a sheltered cove where beginners can practice on calm water.

• A large lawn where people at art shows and concerts would have good views of the river and the downtown skyline.

• Tennis, basketball and pickleball courts, plus a lighted, synthetic-turf athletic field with bleachers for soccer, football and lacrosse.

• A family picnic area, a splash pad for children, a fenced children’s play area, a dog park and a water taxi stop.

Tampa officials also see the redevelopment of Riverfront Park as an anchor for attracting interest to 120 acres they are calling the West River area. That neighborhood now includes the park, a city truck maintenance yard and the North Boulevard Homes public housing apartments.

But City Hall is moving the trucks so it can seek bids from apartment developers for its land there. Plans call for North Boulevard Homes to be demolished and rebuilt as a more walkable neighborhood with subsidized housing and apartments or homes that sell or rent on the open market.

Officials said the investment in the park will help Tampa compete for a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhood grant that’s key to the West River plan.

“What we’re trying to do is leverage our investment,” said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s top development official. Already, he said, there’s nearly $100 million worth of apartments that have been built or are under construction in nearby North Hyde Park, plus about $26 million more being invested in a renovation of the old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

And three of the 1,700 North Boulevard Homes residents who are moving out ahead of the apartments’ demolition supported the park makeover. Residents council president David Gallon said Riverfront Park used to be a place for barbecues and car shows, and the project could reanimate it as a center of community life.

“My goal,” resident Justine Pierre said, “is to turn around and come right back when the West River project is developed.”

Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or [email protected]. Follow @Danielson_Times

The man behind the park’s name

Dairy rancher Julian B. Lane served as mayor of Tampa from 1959 through 1963.

As mayor, Lane presided over the start of Tampa’s move toward racial integration of public facilities, including lunch counters, hospitals, schools and Lowry Park. During his time in office, the city was hit by a flood, a big freeze and bitter, violent strikes against the local bus line and telephone company. He also expanded the Fire Department by 200 firefighters, fought efforts to close MacDill Air Force Base and appointed a committee to study the proposed construction of Tampa Stadium.

He died in 1997 at age 82.

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