TAMPA — A clear view of the Hillsborough River. A large, grassy lawn. Splash pads for kids. Better access to the water for most anyone with a paddle or an oar.
Those are some of the main ideas taking shape for Tampa's planned $8 million makeover at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
Positioned along N Boulevard on the river's west bank, the park's design dates to the 1970s and its 23 acres are underutilized.
Its man-made mounds hide the river. A haphazard arrangement of playground equipment and a seldom-used amphitheater feel jumbled, creating isolated dead spaces.
Nor does the park feel safe at night, which residents say discourages people from using it late in the afternoon.
"I would love to get in the mind of whoever built this," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said during a walk through the park Friday, "because for the life of me, I can't figure it out."
A 'quiet middle' with active edges
Last week, a public meeting on park plans drew a vocal crowd of more than 100 to Blake High School.
Some ideas aired at a similar meeting last month — a Ferris wheel, a grove of hammocks for snoozing — didn't make the cut.
Park planners kept others, and three suggested designs share some common features.
Each keeps the current Boys & Girls Club in place and has tennis and basketball courts, a large athletic field, playground, splash pad and a spot for dogs.
Each flattens the park's large mounds in favor of a "great lawn" looking east across the river toward the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Each has more parking along Laurel Street and a launch for nonmotorized boats.
Otherwise, the designs would:
• Leave Laurel Street where it is, cutting through the northern third of the park, but replace the amphitheater with a shady area offering barbecue and picnic pavilions.
• Shift Laurel north toward Interstate 275, creating more usable space on its south side. This design has an informal amphitheater, event pavilions, outdoor gym and "urban beach."
• Shift Laurel north and include a bigger splash pad, ornamental gardens and a two-story "river center," which could include a community room atop boat storage, restrooms, concessions and rental kiosks for things like paddleboards.
Generally, planners say, each design creates a park with a "quiet middle" and a more active range of uses on the edges.
'Not one of these Disney lakes'
The river center intrigues Buckhorn, who said he has seen nice-looking boathouses in other cities.
It's also popular with Tampa's growing community of dragon boat paddlers, a couple dozen of whom attended the meeting at Blake. Dragon boater Geri Nuevo, who lives about a mile and a half from the park, liked the balance of land-based amenities and the river center, the boldest change in the mix.
"It encompasses everything," she said. "If we want to change the community, we should take risks."
The urban beach — a chlorinated swim area separated from the river by an in-water berm — could draw tourists who now leave Tampa for the Pinellas County beaches, said Rob Dubsky, president of the nonprofit North Hyde Park Alliance.
"They'll stay here, and they'll spend their tourist dollars here," he said, adding that a similar riverfront beach in Brisbane, Australia, is a hit.
But a longtime rower cautioned against encouraging too much water activity.
"I've been in the river probably about a half of a dozen times, and it is no fun," Dr. Alvin Felman said. "It is polluted. It has strong currents going either way. It's a commercial waterway. . . . It is not one of these Disney lakes."
Dr. Lois Miles, who lives in West Riverfront, was skeptical a few years back when Buckhorn talked about putting a restaurant at the park. After seeing plans last week, she was generally comfortable, though put off by "special interest groups" like the dragon boaters and urban beach advocates touting their pet projects.
"Come on," Miles said. "Why do you have to ram this down the throats of people who are trying to have a nice family park?"
Some African-American residents want to see the park reflect their long history with the park. At one time, one man said, everyone in West Tampa knew you went to church on Sunday, then to Riverfront Park for football.
Others asked for a senior center or distinctive playground.
"This park needs family recreation and a family playground, specifically for kids from 0 to 6," said Kevin Plummer, head of school at neighboring Tampa Preparatory School. "Make it the most dynamic playground possible in the city of Tampa, and families will come."
A meeting on a draft plan is scheduled for Aug. 12. If all goes well, a plan would by ready to go forward Sept. 9.
"Things are starting to jell based on the community's input," Buckhorn said. "We're not going to make everyone happy. I recognize that, but we'll try to do the best we can to make as many people happy as we can."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected]