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Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, dubbed downtown Tampa's living room, close to opening

TAMPA — With about a year to go as mayor, Pam Iorio will soon christen her most visible project: Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

With a price tag of more than $43 million, the park features a dog run, a playground, fountains, a riverfront stage area, elevated seating areas and arty details throughout, along with an unobstructed view of the University of Tampa minarets from Ashley Drive.

It also holds the new Tampa Museum of Art, scheduled to open in February, and the Children's Museum, set to debut later this year.

Iorio has billed the area as downtown's living room, the front door to the new museums and a destination for the entire region. The public grand opening will be Jan. 24.

"It's going to be a gift to the community when it's all unveiled this year," Iorio said. "Most of the community doesn't know what's been going on behind those construction gates."

The final bill is about $6 million more than the original contract approved by the Tampa City Council two years ago. That's in part because the city decided to roll other projects into the park contract, including repairs to a crumbling Hillsborough River seawall, work on a parking garage under the old Kiley Gardens and road improvements.

City finance director Bonnie Wise said that allowed for savings that helped pay for other features, such as the dog park, a pavilion and a concession stand with rental space for vendors. Those were part of the park's master plan, designed by Thomas Balsley, but weren't included in the original contract because of budget concerns.

"We took a cafeteria approach to it," Iorio said, explaining that the items were put back in when money became available.

Wise said the funding sources for the park, including gas taxes, sales taxes, downtown property taxes and various city trust funds, are designated for specific purposes, such as buildings, trees and parking facilities. That means the money couldn't have been used for things such as city workers' salaries, she said. Iorio battled with the unions this year over her decision to freeze pay citywide.

A $1 million donation from the Lykes Foundation paid for two fountains, one along Ashley Drive and another near the river.

Eventually, the park will include a two-level riverfront restaurant.

The park can hold 10,000 people for special events and concerts that can be viewed from a variety of perches: tree-shaded benches, grassy stadium seats and lighted wooden platforms that jut out from the sloped "grand lawn."

"The nice thing is you discover all these spots," said project manager Pete Karamitsanis, as he surveyed the view Friday from a wood deck above the lawn.

Once the art museum opens, people can check out goings on from a museum balcony or a patio outside the museum cafe. The cafe, Sono, will be run by Mise En Place, a popular South Tampa restaurant.

The Jan. 24 grand opening will start at 1:30 p.m. and will include music, dance performances, food and participation by the Lowry Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry and area sports teams.

The Gasparilla parade on Jan. 30 will end at the park, where Collective Soul will perform with the river as a backdrop.

Iorio called Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park the place to party that day because police will be cracking down on bad behavior on Bayshore Boulevard.

Other events have been planned for throughout the year: monthly jazz brunches from March through December, a Florida Orchestra concert in April and possibly movies hosted by the Tampa Theatre.

"This has to be an urban park," Karamitsanis said. "This is what an urban park should be."

There are a few odd features. The concession stand also holds restrooms, so the sign over the window where people will order their food reads "Restrooms."

And, at the request of state officials, a sign was posted by the fountains, in which people can cool off. The warning: Stay out if you have diarrhea and put swim diapers on children.

Karamitsanis said state officials had also wanted a "no diving" sign, even though there is no way to dive into fountains that are flush with the pavement.

"It's the state," he said. "Don't blame it on the city."

Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, dubbed downtown Tampa's living room, close to opening 01/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 12:12am]
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