Friday, January 19, 2018
News Roundup

Carlton: Don't let Tampa's success ruin the show at the Straz

When you're talking about Tampa's downtown, growth is good. Cranes bobbing, parks reborn, streets bustling, buildings rising, all good. Growth is great!

But a side effect of growth that threatens to mess with one of the city's best assets? Not good.

The problem is parking, or the lack thereof. City officials will tell you there are plenty of spaces — just not, you know, close to where you want to go.

This specific red flag of a problem involves the Straz, Tampa's gem of a performing arts center elegantly sprawled along the Hillsborough River at downtown's northwest corner. With five theaters and a conservatory, it's the place to see Wicked, laugh at David Sedaris and try to stay awake through an endless graduation. During summers, it teems with kids taking ballet, violin, even going to rock school. All good.

But crisis brews. Downtown grows, nearby Straz parking does not. In fact, a new apartment development under construction has temporarily gobbled 500 close spaces for Straz patrons not inclined to walk long distances. Even for Hamilton.

What about our existing parking lots and garages? Let's just say historically it's as if we turned the whole system over to a demented villain who rubbed his hands with glee. Over the years, past parking options have involved getting a weird plastic coin from a machine you must later return, unmanned pay stations with instructions that would befuddle a Rhodes scholar, standing in line for a ticket so you can traipse all the way back to your car to put it on the dashboard and —- not making this up — a live attendant standing at the ticket machine as you drive in who pushes the button for you and hands you your ticket. Seriously.

How bad is it for the Straz?

The president of the Florida Orchestra recently told the City Council its closing pops concert was more than 90 percent sold out at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and even he couldn't get a ticket for St. Pete's Mahaffey Theater. But the same show at a much smaller hall at the Straz was only three-quarters full. Ouch.

How bad? Curtains have been held 20 minutes or more — and in at least one case, a lot of thwarted theatergoers still weren't there. No wonder some people, frustrated by what should be a lovely night turned into a stressful slog, say they're canceling tickets and giving up.

This matters. "It's got to be solved," says Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen. "If you get a reputation for holding the curtain, it's going to hurt our world-class facility."

The encouraging news: A task force is working on creative solutions that the City Council hears on June 22. Some short-term fixes could include preselling spaces, cutting down on lines at pay stations by having more of them and staffing them, dependable shuttles, reconfigured streets and traffic cops. Mostly, we need to figure out how to use existing garages and lots as event parking rather than all-day spaces so crowds coming and going all at once don't back up block after frustrating block.

Long-term? Nobody loves big ugly parking garages, but eventually the Straz will likely need one nearby.

In summation, downtown growth is good. Not letting a city's success be its headache, even better.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

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