DOWNTOWN — The Riverwalk is supposed to be a ribbon around the city's waterfront that ties downtown together, creating a continuous path sweeping people to museums, restaurants and city parks along the way. But right now that ribbon is a string of disconnected strips. The economy stalled and private developers who were supposed to pitch in haven't — the most notable of them being the Trump Tower project.
Five years ago, Trump Tower was touted to become the tallest skyscraper on Florida's west coast. Instead, the site has remained a scraggly, weed-ridden 1.5-acre eyesore locked behind a fence at 100 S Ashley Drive, its Riverwalk potential locked away with it.
The city is negotiating with a potential buyer of the land so Tampa can extend the Riverwalk there.
"It would really be a win-win for everybody," said Lee Hoffman, the Riverwalk's development manager.
The former tower site would be a small piece of the puzzle but crucial to completing the 2.2-mile walkway, which continues to transform downtown with new little landmarks and special events.
"What's really exciting about the Riverwalk is they're starting to activate it," Tampa Downtown Partnership spokesman Paul Ayres said. "It definitely adds to the feel of downtown Tampa."
The Riverwalk concept has been around since the mid 1970s but didn't start taking shape until Mayor Pam Iorio made it one of her signature projects when she took office. The $27 million walkway will link the Channel District to Tampa Heights along Garrison Channel and the Hillsborough River. One mile, or 45 percent of the project, is complete, much of it built over the past two years.
For some residents, the project's progress is disappointing. A real estate agent told Gail Cox that the Riverwalk would be complete by now when the agent sold her a nearby home in 2005, touting the pathway's "red bricks on the river."
"I thought they were going to continue farther down," said Cox, 30, who took her 17-month-old daughter to the Riverwalk recently. "Obviously, I thought it'd be a lot bigger."
Karen Hindman, 38, who drove from Brandon to let her two kids eat lunch and play in the new misting fountain at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, agreed.
"I expected it to be bigger to be honest with you," she said. "It's very pretty. I like it down here. But they should expand it more."
The city's certainly trying. Three stretches remain missing including a gap between Brorein Street and MacDill Park, which is along Ashley Drive. The former Trump Tower site is part of that missing gap.
Hoffman said he has been working with BB&T bank, which owns the foreclosed site, to secure a 23-foot easement where this section of the Riverwalk path could be installed. It would cost the city between $650,000 and $1.1 million depending on whether the pathway juts into the water.
A draft of an agreement is being reviewed by the bank, Hoffman said.
The negotiations are just one of several balls Hoffman is juggling to complete the Riverwalk. The entire stretch is under construction, designed, permitted or committed to by developers. Another 175-foot piece that will begin construction this summer is an underpass under Brorein Street. That stretch, just south of the former Trump project, will be funded by grants, private donors and the city.
Fifteen interpretive displays are planned along the river to inform strollers about Tampa landmarks and traditions such as the University of Tampa minarets, Tampa Bay, Clara Frye Hospital, Gasparilla and the graffiti that lines the Hillsborough River banks left by college crews. About eight to 10 docks are in design behind the Tampa Bay History Center, and Hoffman envisions adding more by Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
The park is where the Friends of the Riverwalk, a nonprofit group, has sold space on 1- by 1-foot pavers for people's permanent inscriptions. So far, the pavers, which cost $100 for individuals and $250 for corporations, have brought in more than $17,000, Hoffman said.
One of those pavers has become a landmark. On it are the words, "WILL YOU MARRY ME?" a Friends of the Riverwalk idea. A bench in front of the paver faces the Hillsborough River and UT. Called the "Proposing Bench," it's just one of the little treasures the city and Riverwalk donors hope to plant along the winding path to create a destination.
"It pretty much is," said Karen Ramsey, 51, who grew up in Tampa and strolled through the Riverwalk last week. "What they've done is impressive. They've made big strides."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]