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A walk in the park with Mayor Pam: Could downtown Tampa be coming into its own?

You know those ridiculously optimistic artist renderings they trot out when they're trying to convince the public of the worthiness of some major project, like a big park?

You know, the ones with the airbrushed people strolling along, the dog walkers and cafe sitters, the green grass and the water views in the midst of the shiny downtown buildings?

Apparently, that's what's been quietly happening to my city.

Oh, I don't mean you, downtown St. Petersburg. You've known this feeling all along and big time, the chance to meander along the water, the walkable restaurants, the green spaces, the museums, the views. Did you even know gritty Tampa has a not-so-ugly river running through it? Yep. No one remembering that the public might actually want to see the water kept it pretty much under wraps.

"I can't wait to show Bill Foster this," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio says of her mayoral counterpart across the bay.

We are walking through the sloping, newly reopened Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. More accurately, I am walking; she is stopping to talk to everyone who passes, asking a couple how they liked the new dog park (apparently, "Snickers" approved), inquiring what a lady and her small niece thought of the new playground. The weekday is so idyllic I suspect them of being plants, down to the gulls lining the rail by the new public boat dockage, the passing water taxi gliding down the river and the graceful University of Tampa minarets beyond.

The mayor points out the fountains, the great lawn, the concrete Fred Flintstone chairs that actually swivel. The within-budget, on-time, sensible-suits mayor sits and demonstrates. She actually says "Wheee." Now and again she stops to — I am not making this up — pull an errant weed from the patchwork quilt of fresh sod.

When Iorio took office, plans for a condo tower here needed only her signature. It was the first thing she rejected. Plans for a pricey art museum on busy Ashley Drive went by the wayside, too.

This day, as we walk past, workers are affixing the "S" in "MUSEUM" to the side of the shiny new Tampa Museum of Art by the river, which opens today. A bright new children's museum next door follows in the fall. (Look, St. Petersburg — we've got museums, too!)

The economy slowed everything, including Tampa's plans for a 2.2-mile Riverwalk, though large sections are done, here and on the other side of the bridge to Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. On that end you have winding paths and water views as you're headed toward Channelside. The day after this walk, I will have a suspiciously perfect waterfront lunch there at the new Tampa Bay History Center (museum!), with nearly every outside cafe table taken. Good grief, what's next? People downtown on weekends?

The mayor is the one who points out how the park looked like one of those artist renderings when it opened recently, dogs, kids, people tossing a football. It's like that this day, plus the occasional homeless guy resting on a bench.

There was a time when I first got to this city that Tampa had another downtown park you could not find without a tour guide and an armed guard, when everyone seemed to forget we had a river in there somewhere.

No more. Quietly, downtown Tampa is coming into its own.

A walk in the park with Mayor Pam: Could downtown Tampa be coming into its own? 02/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 1:05pm]

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