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Hooper: Riverwalk can shape a revived downtown Tampa

An artist’s rendering shows the Tampa Riverwalk’s final portion from near the Kennedy Boulevard bridge at MacDill Park around the Tampa Convention Center.

City of Tampa

An artist’s rendering shows the Tampa Riverwalk’s final portion from near the Kennedy Boulevard bridge at MacDill Park around the Tampa Convention Center.

George Packer's stinging portrayal of Tampa in his new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, saddened my outlook on the place we call home, if only for a moment.

Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, paints an unflattering but largely truthful depiction of the devastating impact the home building collapse and its underpinnings of manipulative greed and reckless get-rich desires had on this area.

But in the course of chronicling that ill-fated episode of Tampa history, he concludes that the lack of interaction between the city's residents, particularly in downtown, creates a void in our urban design.

Of Tampa, he writes:

"Its downtown has no coherence, nothing to attract people beyond an office job, a hockey game, or a court case. Riding a bike around town was dangerous and so was trying to walk across one of the broad high-speed streets. As a result, strangers were never able to engage with one another."

It's an incomplete assessment that overlooks the positive impact of the David A. Straz Jr. Performing Arts Center, the Florida Aquarium and the spate of relatively new museums that dot the downtown landscape.

But if we're honest with ourselves, we have to admit it holds some truth.

Fortunately, a big part of the solution lies on the horizon — the Tampa Riverwalk.

Some may say looking to the Riverwalk to resolve the long, persistent problem of creating a true buzz in downtown raises the bar too high, but city officials put those lofty expectations firmly in place Tuesday in celebrating the groundbreaking of a key section that will go under the Kennedy Boulevard bridge, linking Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with MacDill Park.

Completion of the link in November 2014 will give bikers and pedestrians a scenic walkway that will link the five parks along the river and provide a scenic 1.8-mile stretch from the Straz all the way to the Tampa Bay History Center.

But it must have people, friendly people, providing those chance encounters if it's going to succeed in creating a genuine urban vibe. The river, the aforementioned museums and the historical monument trail can serve as an impetus, but the city can't stop there.

First of all, any fan of the band Chicago knows a Saturday in the Park must have "a man selling ice cream, singing Italian songs." In the new millennium, we're probably talking about a frozen yogurt shop, but nevertheless, the need for vendors is evident.

Attorney Steve Anderson, who helped develop the Riverwalk's historic monument trail, concurs about putting in more vendors and says he hopes to see the city ease requirements so more vendors can set up shop and sell popcorn, hot dogs and frozen treats.

Anderson, a member of the Riverwalk steering committee, also noted that once the link is finished, the plan is to constantly have events in the parks along the Riverwalk. He envisions a two- or three-day music festival that would feature different bands in each of the parks.

Adding to the excitement: the completion of a northern extension that will extend past the Straz and up to the Tampa Waterworks site where Columbia owner Richard Gonzmart plans a new restaurant called Ulele.

Dining options, boat slips, sidewalk musicians — all can be added to enhance the experience and draw more people. Anderson says they're soliciting ideas.

Residents have to pull together to take advantage of all these additions, and I mean all of us — those who live downtown and those who want to drive here and enjoy a different experience.

If we can do it, we can have that vibrant downtown you find in other urban enclaves. But we'll have the added advantage of better weather and, quite frankly, friendlier people than those you find in gritty places like New York and Boston.

That's a truth we'll be able to celebrate.

That's all I'm saying.

Hooper: Riverwalk can shape a revived downtown Tampa 06/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 2:21pm]
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