I've said it before and I'll say it again: Unlike sister city St. Petersburg across the bay, Tampa has historically done an abysmal job of taking advantage of its downtown waterfront.
Long ignored was the idea that the sight of the Hillsborough River flowing along the western edge of downtown might not-so-subtly change the feel of the city — if, that is, the view were actually viewable and not blocked by buildings and bad planning.
The good news: Tampa has slowly awakened to this with its Riverwalk and 8-acre urban center that is Curtis Hixon Park. Helpfully, the park even includes the word "Waterfront" in its name.
More good news: Mayor Bob Buckhorn, also known as Bob the Builder, has ambitious plans to take advantage of his city's waterfront, and not just that traditional downtown side.
Which bring us to the controversy over Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, a sprawling, well-used but somewhat shrouded piece of property on the other side of the river near Interstate 275 — a park that has caught the mayor's considering eye.
The invisible lines that divide this city can take some getting used to. Kennedy Boulevard is its most infamous, separating well-heeled South Tampa neighborhoods from, ick, the rest of the city — like where I live. When I first came here, I met SOK (South of Kennedy) people who sounded almost proud when they said that but for the occasional airport trip, they rarely ventured north.
You hit another invisible line where downtown ends at the river, even though the other side is no farther than, say, a lunchtime walk between a downtown office tower and a downtown Thai restaurant. During the Republican National Convention, Planned Parenthood held a feisty rally at Julian B. Lane Park, and I wondered then if organizers were puzzled to find they were not really in the thick of things, since downtown was right there in front of them across the water.
But Julian B. Lane is not just a big chunk of grassy green waterfront. It's a true neighborhood park.
Named for the man who was Tampa's mayor from 1959 to 1963 and who saw the beginnings of a city moving past racial segregation, the sprawling 24 acres serve West Tampa, nearby public housing complexes, Blake High School, people who row the river, South Tampa-ites who play tennis, and the Boys & Girls Club at its edge, among others.
So some who love the park sound understandably nervous to hear the mayor talking of making it more a part of a city growing up and out, of erasing the invisible line, of even a riverfront restaurant there. (This is also a town slow to grasp the fact that people like to dine on the water, which, it turns out, Tampa has.)
None of which has to mean the end of a true park.
One of the best things about downtown's Curtis Hixon is who uses it: office workers, hipsters from high-rises, kids who come from nearby neighborhoods to play in its interactive fountains. It, too, is a true neighborhood park.
With careful planning, Julian B. Lane can evolve but also keep what's best about it. Bob the Builder has also vowed to be The Mayor Who Listens and include those who already use it in future plans.
Good news. Done right, there's room in that park on the river for everyone.