TAMPA — Monday wasn't the first time Tampa has tried to do something bold and visionary and transformative at the 23 acres of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
But at $35.5 million, City Hall has never put this kind of money into the effort.
"This park is not cheap," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a mid-morning ceremony to kick of 18 months of construction at the park, which is just across the Hillsborough River from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. "But I think we also understand as a community the value of parks in our city. They are the common ground."
It's the biggest city project in West Tampa in decades, one that's aimed at creating an urban park as active and popular as Water Works and Curtis Hixon Waterfront parks.
Officials also hope a re-energized Riverfront Park will draw new residents and investment to 120 nearby acres they are calling West River.
To pay for the project, City Hall will use $15 million of the $20 million Tampa received from BP because of lost tourism revenues after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Most of the rest of the project funds will come from the Community Investment Tax, the half-cent that Hillsborough County collects on sales to pay for schools, roads and other public projects.
"You will find something to do no matter what your tastes are in this park," Tampa parks and recreation director Greg Bayor said. When the new park opens around February 2018, it will feature:
• A new river center with a community room, a large shaded deck, storage for rowing shells and dragon boats, a public dock, paddleboard rentals, a riverfront promenade and a sheltered cove where beginners can practice on calm water.
• A large lawn where people at art shows and concerts would have good views of the river and the downtown skyline.
• Tennis, basketball and pickleball courts, plus a lighted, synthetic-turf athletic field with bleachers for soccer, football and lacrosse.
• A family picnic area, a splash pad for children, a fenced children's play area, a dog park and a water taxi stop.
"We're making progress in West Tampa," said City Council member Frank Reddick, who grew up three blocks away and learned to play tennis and basketball at the park. The finished park, he said, will create "what we all want in this community, and that is a safe, livable place where we can come and bring our families."
But to make room for the new amenities, the city will scrape the site bare of the defining features of the last big experiment there — the large earthen mounds, berms and swales designed by renowned New York architect Richard Dattner.
"I have heard about the replacement project, and am sad to see my park leveled," Dattner, who is known for creating unorthodox, rough-hewn spaces for adventurous play, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times before Monday's event.
In the mid-1970s, the city brought in Dattner to do something creative at what was then a flat, featureless park. The project was being done as part of the Model Cities program created by former President Lyndon Johnson, but money was limited. Dattner said Tampa officials wanted the resulting park to draw together mostly black neighbors and mostly white downtown office workers on their lunch hour. At the same time, officials were concerned about visibility and safety within the park.
Instead of putting up new buildings, Dattner designed the park with a series of "earth sculptures" — exterior rooms, he said, that were "carved out of earth berms to preserve the entire park as a green, landscaped surface." Enclosed within man-made hills of various heights were an amphitheater and adventure playground with a ropes course, tennis courts, outdoor pool, central courtyard and fountain, tennis courts, and storage space and maintenance offices under a circular landscaped berm.
To get people walking across the park, making it safer in the process, Dattner laid out two tree-lined diagonal promenades that cross at the center of the park.
Dattner said the most original idea at work was to treat the entire site as a large earth sculpture, not only creating a green park at a reasonable cost, but providing high spots in the park to give visitors good views of the river.
"On a flat site, despite opinions to the contrary, only people at the water's edge can actually see the river," he said. "The built park was beautiful. Kids loved the water fountain in the activity circle as well as the slide safely descending from the top of the highest mound — in kids' imaginations a 'mountain' in overwhelmingly flat Tampa. On my few visits after its completion I found a diverse group of all ages enjoying the variety of activities purposely provided."
In the years that followed, however, one of the mounds was bulldozed, and more conventional playground equipment replaced the forts. The shuffleboard courts and pool were taken out. It became a little-used space. Former Mayor Pam Iorio commissioned a study that recommended improvements such as new softball fields, but Buckhorn discarded that in favor of a complete do-over.
It's too bad, Dattner said.
"It could have been treasured, maintained, and gently upgraded to meet current requirements," he said, "rather than demolished — a landmark landscape gone."
'Alien space mounds'
But the history of Riverfront Park goes back before the 1970s. In the 1940s, it was the site of stock car races on an oval track. During segregation, Tampa's two black high schools, Middleton and Blake, played their home football games there, and Hillsborough and Plant played an annual Thanksgiving game there. And it was known as a place for neighborhood gatherings and weekend cookouts.
"A place where it didn't matter which side of the city you were from," said North Boulevard Homes residents council president David Gallon, who said the park means so much to him that he got married there. "When you came here, you were family."
It's no secret that Buckhorn doesn't like Dattner's design. He's called the earth sculptures "alien space mounds" and says they obstruct views of the river.
Surveys done during the design process found that some residents didn't know what was at Riverfront Park. The daughter of former Mayor Julian B. Lane has said that before the unveiling of the new design two years ago, she had never walked to the river through the park named for her father.
To give visitors views of the river and downtown's skyline, the redevelopment of the park will flatten the mounds and create a grade that is highest next to North Boulevard and gently slopes down to the river.
Beyond this immediate project, officials hope remaking Riverfront Park will accomplish much of what Model Cities aimed to do.
Investing in Riverfront Park, Buckhorn hopes, will help Tampa compete for a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant to help pay for the West River plan. City Hall is moving a nearby truck maintenance depot and wants to sell the land for apartment development. North Boulevard Homes, Tampa's oldest public housing complex, is earmarked for demolition. Housing officials plan to replace it with both subsidized housing and dwellings that sell or rent on the open market.
"It is the project that is the most transformative for West Tampa," Buckhorn said. He said when Gallon and other North Boulevard Homes residents return to a redeveloped neighborhood, "they won't have to live in a gang-infested, violent public housing project. They can live in a community that they are proud to call home and where everyone enjoys the same benefits."
Contact Richard Danielson at (813) 226-3403 or [email protected] Follow @Danielson_Times