TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn would love to see more waterfront dining along the Hillsborough River, but he's backing away from the idea of trying to bring a restaurant to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park anytime in the near future.
"I just don't know that at this point in time it would make sense," Buckhorn said last week. "What I would like to have there and what is practical are two different things."
Buckhorn first floated the idea of pursuing a restaurant for the park last September. The city already is negotiating with Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart to bring an oyster bar and chophouse to Water Works Park. And at the time, Buckhorn was looking into a proposed museum — it has since fallen through — that would have added a restaurant to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
But in the months since, several West Tampa residents have objected and told the City Council they are suspicious about the city's intentions for Riverfront Park.
In response, council member Mike Suarez said on Jan. 10 that Buckhorn's administration has a "public relations problem" with residents worried about the park's future. The same day, Council member Frank Reddick urged a top city administrator to tell the mayor to stop musing about Riverfront Park.
"One thing that would help ease the tensions of these residents is if the young man who is in the big house across the hall would stop making all these comments to the press about that park," said Reddick, who at 57 is three years older than Buckhorn. "That is what's causing the problem."
Told last week that the mayor says a restaurant does not appear to be a practical option for the park, Reddick said, "that is good news to hear, but I will still want to see any plans that they have in mind."
Reddick noted that the mayor put $2.5 million in Community Investment Tax spending on the park in this year's budget — money that Buckhorn has said is there as a placeholder for a detailed plan that is yet to be written.
"When you put millions of dollars in the budget for planning and design and you've had not one discussion with the neighborhood's residents, it makes it hard for the residents to feel comfortable with whatever decision you're going to make," Reddick said.
Dr. Lois Miles, a West Riverfront homeowner who has written Buckhorn and spoken to the council about the park, was glad to hear that Buckhorn sounds less determined to pursue a restaurant. She still wants to hear more about any long-range plans for Riverfront Park.
"As long as there's a park there, I'm happy," she said. "I just don't want them to do away with it altogether."
For the record, no one has talked about that. To the contrary, Buckhorn said he wants to make the park more active and a busier center of city life.
Riverfront Park is on 23 acres along North Boulevard across the river from the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts. It has tennis, basketball and racquetball courts, a playground, a small semi-circular theater. It also is home to the Boys & Girls Clubs and the nonprofit Stewards Foundation, which hosts community rowing programs.
Buckhorn said the park is under-used and overdue for an update. He said the city will go out to the community and seek residents' ideas for the park well in advance of any plans.
In coming months, the Tampa Housing Authority, working with City Hall, is paying a consultant to create a master plan for 140 acres west of the river. The area mostly lies north of Interstate 275, south of Columbus Drive and east of Rome Avenue. It is 80 percent government-owned and includes 7,200 feet of river frontage.
One of the first big projects will be to demolish the North Boulevard Homes and Mary Bethune public housing complexes, which cover 40 acres, and replace them with a mix of affordable housing, conventional apartments and commercial development.
Buckhorn describes Riverfront Park as "an integral part of the larger mosaic," but said, "I don't know what the future is going to look like, so I really don't have anything to tell people until we get the larger planning effort resolved."
"The success of North Boulevard Homes and what that looks like affects what takes place in Riverfront Park," he said.
But while he concedes a restaurant does not appear to be workable, Buckhorn is still intrigued about a couple of possible changes for Riverfront Park.
First, he wants to re-route Laurel Street, which currently cuts the park in two big pieces, to the edge of the park. That should create a larger, unbroken space that could accommodate sports or other activities, he said.
Second, Buckhorn still wants to get rid of the large mound next to the playground and the grassy swales and humps that block the view of the river from inside the park.
"Right now I need get that park functional, because it's not really functional," he said. "It's a bunch of bumps."