Every decade or so, people in the Old Southeast like to say, a discussion comes up about putting something in Lassing Park. And every time, the discussions fall apart.
This year was no different.
The idea put forth by the city this spring was to offer residents a playground at the waterfront park. But in the months since, the only thing put to paper were signatures on various petitions for and against the idea. Lots of them. Mostly against.
"There's a great affection for that park. You try and do anything to it and people just come out of the woodwork," said Steve Watson, president of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association. "We just need, for the time being, to do nothing."
It wasn't just people in the Old Southeast who threw up roadblocks. Residents in neighboring Tropical Shores were said to be fine with a playground — as long as it was away from 22nd Avenue S, where the park borders their neighborhood. Neighbors in Driftwood and Big Bayou also voiced concerns.
Exasperated, the city pulled away from the idea. Susan Ajoc, the city's neighborhood partnership manager, abruptly canceled a visit last week to the Old Southeast association meeting.
"At this point, it's just the idea of a possibility of a playground," Ajoc said. "It reminds me of traffic calming. You have some very passionate people on both sides."
Lassing Park is one of the few open waterfront neighborhood parks in the city. It has a natural, sandy shoreline that attracts seabirds, and flats that allow fishermen and children to walk deep toward a sandbar jutting into Tampa Bay. It has large fields of grass that slope toward the sea and are peppered only with benches and palm trees.
John M. Lassing, a Kentucky judge who deeded most of the land to the city in 1926, preferred it that way. He stipulated that it forever remain a public park. A 1993 neighborhood plan affirmed this intention, calling for Lassing Park to remain a "passive nature park" similar to Boyd Hill.
The 15-acre park runs from 15th to 22nd avenues SE. The city's plans to put a playground there is part of its program to put a public playground within half a mile of every child. The nearest playground is in Bartlett Park, which requires crossing Fourth Street.
Among the naysayers was Watson, the father of a 7-year-old boy, who says he prefers Lassing Park the way it is. Watson said support for keeping the park the way it is came from all over the neighborhood, not just the waterfront.
Crime was a concern, Watson said. Over the years, Lassing Park has struggled with prostitution and drugs, and more recently, vagrants. A playground after dark might offer a location for these activities, he said.
It has always been this way. In 2000, residents of the Old Southeast discovered that their neighbors in Tropical Shores were planning concrete walkways and exercise equipment at the park. After a clash, everyone agreed to do nothing.
Before that, there was a brouhaha over tennis courts, said parks director Cliff Footlick. More recently, residents complained after trees were added to the park. The city came and took them away, Watson said.
City Council member Karl Nurse, who lives in the Old Southeast and was the association president for 10 years, until 2002, said he was stunned by the outpouring against a playground.
"Usually, when you want to bring a playground into their neighborhood, (residents) are happy about it," Nurse said. "I'd be perfectly happy with it here. From my perspective, little kids playing doesn't interfere with the park."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.