A half-century from now, future generations of Tampa residents will think of the 23 acres on the west bank of the Hillsborough River as their city’s version of Central Park.
At least that’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s hope.
"This will be a gift to the city unlike anything city government has ever done," Buckhorn told reporters during a media tour Monday of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, scheduled to open May 12 on Mother’s Day weekend. That Friday, the mayor will give the state of the city address in the park.
The $35.5 million project will transform the park and, Buckhorn hopes, ignite the west bank of the river, drawing millions of dollars in private development north to Blake High School and south on the river to the former site of the Tampa Tribune building.
"Five years from now, you won’t be able to recognize the west side of the Hillsborough River," Buckhorn said. "It’s because of public investment in spaces like this."
On Monday, that vision remained tethered to a muddy reality as workers were still busy completing the park’s amenities, including basketball courts, splash pad, a Great Lawn large enough to accommodate arena-size crowds, docks, a dog park and a two-story boathouse for crews to stow their shells.
A good chunk of the cost — about $15 million — came from the city’s settlement with BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"I couldn’t think of a better use of that money," Buckhorn said.
Public art will play a role throughout the park from Thomas Sayre’s stainless steel Ripple Gates spirals to Jovi Schnell’s mosaic on the restroom building next to the children’s area of the park and Marc Fornes’ Form of Wonder shade canopy and "photo-op" destination.
City Council member Guido Maniscalco said the park is a welcome addition to his district.
"Tampa has never seen anything like this," Maniscalco said. "Now we’re bringing it to the other side of the river where it’s long overdue."
About half of the trees on the site were preserved. Parts of those that were cut were made into benches and repurposed for other uses, city officials said.
The project has had some blips. The opening was delayed by several months after workers discovered "bad dirt" near the Grand Promenade portion of the park. Bricks and other debris from old roads before the original seawall was built needed to be removed, said Skanska senior project manager Jake Krehbiel.
In all, 106 days of delays in obtaining U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits and removing the dirt cost the city about $281,000.
The park’s price tag became a flash point in last year’s budget debate as council members criticized Buckhorn for not fully informing them about a looming property tax increase when they approved the money for the park’s overhaul.
But Monday, Buckhorn was looking toward the future, saying Julian B. Lane will take the pressure off Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on the opposite bank, preserving its grass as events and traffic move across the river.
And it won’t have an equal in the country, he said. The Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas? That borders "a ditch," Buckhorn said, adding that the city looked at waterfront development in Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Philadelphia, but developed its own vision.
And though New York’s Central Park is 840 acres, or about 40 times larger than Julian B. Lane, Buckhorn didn’t hesitate to make that comparison.
"It will be the park that 50 years from now, people who look back on it and say, thank you to whoever did it because they won’t remember who, but I think this will be the equivalent of Tampa’s Central Park," he said.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.