Ed Hoffman Jr. climbed into a bucket truck and prepared to be raised 40 feet over the Anclote River. "I'm going up to see what I can see," he said. Once he got up there, he liked the view: "After my heart calmed down, it was a lot of fun." Hoffman is an architect who's been hired to design a $1 million refurbishment of the Sponge Docks, Tarpon Springs' main tourist attraction. His recent ride in the bucket truck let him see what the view would look like if the city built an observation tower there.
That's one of a number of changes that officials are thinking of making at the Sponge Docks. Other possibilities include turning a block of Dodecanese Boulevard into a shady pedestrian plaza; building a riverwalk along the Anclote; putting in brick streets to distinguish the district from its surroundings; and installing decorative signs to help visitors find their way around.
No decisions have been made yet. The architect has been collecting opinions from nearby business owners, commercial fishing operations along the docks, and Tarpon residents. Probably next month, the City Commission will start setting some priorities and figuring out how many of these projects the city can really afford to do.
The view from on high
So, what can you see from 40 feet up?
Looking east, you get an aerial view of the working waterfront of the Sponge Docks, historic home to spongers, shrimpers and fishermen. Looking west, you can see the Anclote River curve away toward the northwest.
As Hoffman expected, he couldn't see the Gulf of Mexico from the bucket. But, he said, "it is just wonderful to be up there."
Hoffman proposes to make an observation tower an attraction at the west end of the docks — a destination to entice visitors to make their way over there. The spot he's looking at is the north end of Roosevelt Boulevard where it dead-ends at the river.
What does $1M buy?
Improvements are planned along Dodecanese Boulevard from Pinellas Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard. The money will come from Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue.
Tarpon has budgeted $1 million for the project, including construction. City Manager Mark LeCouris estimates that $2 million or $3 million worth of work has been proposed so far, so officials will have to leave some things out.
At a recent public workshop, people in attendance expressed support for several ideas:
Sponge Docks Plaza: This would be a pedestrian plaza with benches and much-needed shade trees. It would go on a city-owned parcel on the southern bank of the Anclote, where the iconic 6-foot-tall Greek sponge diver statue now sits. There's a working dock there for commercial sponge boats. The area is already a public gathering spot that's used for the popular Night in the Islands festivals, which feature Greek music, dancing and food.
To make way for the plaza, the city might close Dodecanese Boulevard between Athens and Hope streets.
"That's something that's been talked about for 20 years," LeCouris said. "You can do the plaza both ways — closing off the road, or not closing off the road."
Riverwalk: Hoffman envisions a lengthy Riverwalk along the southern bank of the Anclote River. "You'd be able to walk along the waterfront all the way to the west end to this observation tower, then walk along Dodecanese on the way back," he said. The tower would be free to those who wanted to climb it.
If the city actually decides to build the Riverwalk, some legal details might have to be ironed out. Fishing businesses that require access to the waterfront would still need to have that access, officials said.
Landscaping: This would be a scenic buffer of plants and trees between Dodecanese Boulevard and the large, treeless parking lots on both sides of Dodecanese at the east end of the Sponge Docks. "There's a real need for trees and greenery around the car lots," Hoffman said. The city could pay for this through a fund that's set aside just for tree planting.
Signs: There's a plan for a series of nautically themed signs, including a bigger sign for the historic district's main entryway, as well as wayfinding signs to help visitors get around.
The architect says the goal of the overall design will be "a sense of authenticity" that reflects Tarpon's history and cultural background and helps promote economic growth.
Hoffman Architects also designed new maritime-themed public restrooms that were recently added to the Hope Street right-of-way between Dodecanese and the Anclote.
Tarpon intends to hold more public workshops in the future to get people's thoughts as the plan continues to develop. There's also a website, imaginethedocks.com, that's being used to give updates on progress, track ideas and log photos and design possibilities.
"We're trying to get as much input as possible from merchants, commercial boaters, recreational boaters and the residents as to what they'd like to see there," said Mayor David Archie.
Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.