The state-of-the art River Center and Boathouse stands as the centerpiece of the new $35.6 million Julian B. Lane Waterfront Park, but officials with one high school rowing club are pursuing a place of their own — in a park closer to home.
The proposal from the Hillsborough High School Rowing Club raises questions about the proper use of city park land and has drawn some opposition from people living near the club’s preferred location — the neighborhood River Crest Park on North Boulevard and Osborne Avenue.
The rowing club had called Julian B. Lane home before work began on the makeover there. Then the club moved up the Hillsborough River to River Crest under a lease that ends in June, when members are scheduled to return to Julian B. Lane and its River Center.
But next month, the South Seminole Heights Civic Association is scheduled to take up a proposal from the rowing club’s administrative board and coaches to let the club seek permits from the city of Tampa for construction of a 3,750-square-foot boathouse at River Crest.
The reason, club officials say: The convenience and safety of team members.
River Crest is less than a mile from Hillsborough High, on Central Avenue just north of Osborne, which is just a 20-minute after-school walk for team members. Julian Lane park is about four miles northeast of Hillsborough High by car.
The extra travel time forced some students to choose between after-school tutoring or rowing practice, so as many as half of the new members would drop out each spring. This year, said Jesse Tate, one of the club’s coaches, only four freshmen have dropped out.
What’s more, the River Crest Park area has natural, sloped banks and far less boat traffic than Julian B. Lane park, which is situated at the north entrance to the downtown area. Boat traffic is constant there, and, coupled with the downtown seawall, the resulting wakes make rowing difficult and dangerous for those aboard the long, thin racing sculls, club officials say.
Javier Cuevas, who has served as the rowing club’s president, said River Crest Park is the best solution.
"The personality of our team is that park," Cuevas said.
The club has worked to become part of the neighborhood community, too, Cuevas said, installing floating docks for use by the public and responding to any concerns raised.
The club also conducted a survey asking whether people would favor a boathouse in River Crest provided it included features that the community could use. Cuevas said 80 percent of respondents favored seeking permission from the city for a boathouse.
Still, some residents want to see more community input before any plans proceed.
"While I do think that the children should have things like this to be involved in the community, I think it’s important that the community is involved in the decisions that are being made," said Danielle Sweet, a park regular who lives east of Florida Avenue.
Jordan Miller, a bike shop owner who used to live adjacent to River Crest, said parks should be parks.
"It should be designed as a civic space and used as such," Miller said. "We are losing true, purposeful civic space and we are gaining event parks that the city rents out for a Gasparilla festival."
Miller added, "To me that is travesty. That is not what I as a taxpayer hope my dollars are used for."
Another concern among some neighbors is parking.
Rowing teams from private high schools Academy of the Holy Names and Berkeley Preparatory School also use River Crest park, but they’re not part of the Hillsborough High club’s proposal. All three schools store their sculls and other equipment inside a temporary chain link fence at the park.
Miller said parents of team members take up available parking spaces and leave their cars running while they wait. The Hillsborough High club usually practices two or three hours a night, five nights a week during its fall and spring season.
During practice one day, Hillsborough High club members Nicholas Jeske and Savion Fordham — both juniors — said they appreciate the convenience of River Crest Park but they also see returning to the boathouse at Julian B. Lane park as the best option for the club.
"The other park has a lot more amenities," Jeske said.
That’s how the city of Tampa sees it, too.
"At this point the city has no plans to allow the construction of a private boathouse in a neighborhood park," said Ashley Bauman, city spokeswoman. "The completion of the River Center at Riverfront Park has been constructed to accommodate all of the local crew teams in a secure and modern facility."
Plans for a River Crest boathouse still are in the early stages, club official Cuevas said. There are no drawings yet to show the neighborhood association, though a preliminary model was posted on Facebook to provide some idea.
The co-ed Hillsborough High School Rowing Club receives no financial support from the school and is a private, non-profit organization. The club’s fund-raising activities include spaghetti dinners and the annual Erg-a-Thon, coming up March 24, where supporters pledge to team members who row 5,000 meters on stationary rowing machines.
Meantime, the club hopes to show the community it can be a good neighbor.
Said Cuevas, "We have tried to be as respectful as possible."
Contact Claudia Guerrero at [email protected]