TAMPA — Since taking office, Mayor Bob Buckhorn has spent a lot of energy and enthusiasm working on upgrades and plans to bring restaurants to Water Works Park and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
But the city has a third park near downtown on the Hillsborough River — Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park — and Buckhorn has his sights on that, too.
Two years ago, Tampa officials put the finishing touches on a master plan for Riverfront Park that called for more athletic facilities like softball diamonds. But that was before Buckhorn was elected. He has his own vision for the 23-acre park, and it doesn't include softball.
"There are other, more appropriate places for softball diamonds," he said.
Instead, Buckhorn is thinking about a more permanent rowing facility, water-focused features like fountains or a paddleboard concession and — should this be any surprise? — maybe even a restaurant overlooking the river.
The park, at 1001 N Boulevard, across the river from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, now includes tennis, basketball and racquetball courts, a small semi-circular amphitheater and a bare-bones rowing facility that stores gear in four shipping containers. It also features a large mound next to the playground and other grassy swales and humps that block the view of the river from inside the park.
Buckhorn hates them.
"The alien space mounds?" he says. "I haven't figured out their purpose. I want to open that park up to the community, to activate it and let people enjoy the water."
Buckhorn's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes $2.5 million in Community Investment Tax spending on the park, and nearly $9.3 million in capital improvement spending over the next four years.
But the mayor acknowledges that line item in the budget is a placeholder for a detailed plan that hasn't been written.
"There's nothing specific now," he said, adding that he could roll the money into budgets if the plan takes longer than expected to come together. "If we started doing design work or some planning I wanted to have the resources there available so we wouldn't have to move it around."
First, Buckhorn said he needs to hear from the Urban Land Institute that has been studying Tampa's redevelopment potential. The institute is a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington.
Buckhorn expects recommendations in three or four months. But in February, a team from the institute revealed some of its thinking about the river — and Riverfront Park. It focused on 140 acres, mostly owned by government agencies, on the river's western bank, north of Interstate 275.
The team's initial suggestions included:
• Moving the tenants out of the aging North Boulevard Homes public housing complex, demolishing the 682 apartments and redeveloping the 40 acres as a mixed-use, mixed-income community. (This would require the approval and financial support of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and generally is expected to be at least several years away.)
• Redeveloping a city-owned 12-acre plot a block from the river where the city now parks utility trucks. The conversion would cost an estimated $10 million.
• Increasing the density of new housing built in the area from the current 20 to 25 units per acre to at least 60 units per acre. This would be meant to draw private investment and the kind of stores and services residents moving to an urban neighborhood would want.
The team also suggested finding ways to make the riverfront more active and inviting in the short term. These could include opening a farmers market, incorporating the area into the activities of college rowing teams that already visit Tampa and bringing live performances to the amphitheater at Riverfront Park.
Buckhorn said he wants to put together a larger plan for the west bank of the river and sees Riverfront Park as a part of that. For example, the Hillsborough River Greenway — a trail that runs near but not directly along the riverbank — goes through the park, and Buckhorn said he can see extending it south and north. He often says his goal is to bring new activity to the riverfront, making it the center of downtown Tampa.
"Just as Curtis Hixon has become the great lawn on the east bank, this could be something similar on the west bank, though less intense," he said.
And that's where a restaurant could come in.
"When you think about it, we have very few waterfront dining options," Buckhorn said. "That's got to change."
Already, the city is negotiating a development agreement for a $2 million, privately financed renovation of Tampa's historic Water Works Building, which is in Water Works Park, a few blocks north of the performing arts center. In January, the city chose Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart and Bill Rain of Metro Bay Real Estate to tackle the project.
In August, the city requested proposals from private developers interested in bringing a museum and restaurant to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The city received one proposal. The plan will not be made public until early October, but indications are that it's from the Palm Harbor-based Two Red Roses Foundation, which has a large collection of decorative objects from the American arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century.
Buckhorn said he has no plans to try attracting restaurants to any city parks beyond those three.
Clearing sight lines to the river could involve more than just flattening the mounds. Riverfront Park has lots of trees — 20-foot palms, oleanders, subtropical ear pod trees and dozens of mature oaks.
It also has at least a few fans.
"There's a lot of things I like about this park," said Ron Segars, 31, a restaurant dishwasher who lives in North Boulevard Homes.
On Friday morning, Segars paused from shooting baskets to say that a lot of little kids love that big mound at the playground. A middle-age couple in gray shorts and T-shirts ran up and down the mound between sets of pushups, which Segars said is common.
City Council member Frank Reddick, whose district includes Riverfront Park, was skeptical of the idea of transforming it into something like Curtis Hixon. Reddick grew up playing tennis and basketball at Riverfront Park and he said surrounding neighborhoods depend on it.
"I'll be watching this closely," Reddick said. "I would hope he reaches out to the neighborhood association in that community before any drastic changes take place."
We will, Buckhorn said.
"We're going to engage the public," he said, just as the city did when it put together the current master plan for the park.
"I've got to figure out if it even makes sense," he said of the idea for a restaurant. "I do think that there needs to be some destination and some reason for people to come down there. . . . My goal is to activate the waterfront."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or on Twitter at @Danielson_Times.