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Plans for Perry Harvey Sr. Park in Tampa go nowhere

Timothy Solomon, 13, negotiates the “Bro Bowl” at Perry Harvey Sr. Park in downtown Tampa on Wednesday. Construction was supposed to begin this fall on a new park with features that would replace the skate bowl, but the plan is on hold.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Timothy Solomon, 13, negotiates the “Bro Bowl” at Perry Harvey Sr. Park in downtown Tampa on Wednesday. Construction was supposed to begin this fall on a new park with features that would replace the skate bowl, but the plan is on hold.

TAMPA

Around this time, people expected to see dramatic, highly publicized changes taking place at downtown's Perry Harvey Sr. Park. Run-down basketball courts and dry grass fields were to be replaced with statues, walkways and landmarks memorializing black history. A new skate park would be built to replace an old hangout that some fought so hard to save. But nothing has happened. And no one really knows when something will.

"A lot of people and families were hoping we'd have broken ground by now, and there's a lot of disappointment," said Fred Hearns, a former city employee who helped plan the park. "But I think everyone understands the climate we're in now."

The park's controversial redevelopment was supposed to be funded through a special kind of loan against future tax collections, a method that was challenged in a Florida Supreme Court case last year and is still tied up in appeals.

Bank of America, in a public-private partnership with the Tampa Housing Authority, planned to build the park, roads and new housing to replace public housing at Central Park Village, then collect taxes from its future residents to make the investment profitable.

The court ruled that paying for such projects using special taxing districts must have voter approval, but then reversed the decision. Now it's being appealed, and no local governments in Florida can use this method of financing until the question is resolved.

And even after the case is settled, many wonder if the Bank of America and the city (which never had the park on its budget and does not have it on future budgets) will be able to afford a $3.5-million park or its surrounding housing anytime soon, given the state of the economy and housing market.

"I don't know how any of that's going to play out now," said Michael Hatchett, a city urban development manager who is overseeing the project. "It may play out that we have to do things in phasing sequences, and it could come to pass a little differently than we planned."

City architect Brad Suder, who once fielded more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls from skateboarders while balancing the requests of the park's African-American neighbors, could give no target date. He thinks it'll be at least a year before the park plans are revived, if not longer.

"Until they (the park's project managers) call me, I don't know," he said. "I've essentially been in a holding pattern until I hear from them again."

• • •

In fall of 2006, the city had some tough decisions to make.

Skateboarders rolled into public meetings and begged the city not to touch their beloved 30-year-old concrete skate bowl, internationally known as "Bro Bowl" in the skaters world.

But black residents wanted an amphitheater, statues, plaques and monuments honoring the site's rich post-Civil War black history. Freed slaves settled on the site in 1865 and built a thriving cultural and commercial hub. Ray Charles made his first recording there. Cab Calloway performed at the Apollo Ballroom.

The skaters and African-American residents loudly clashed over the park in a series of meetings.

The city appointed a 16-member advisory committee of black residents. After a year of debate, including 11 months of emotionally charged meetings by the advisory committee, it was settled. The city would build an elaborate 11-acre park filled with landmarks memorializing local black history, and to the north, a new skate park.

Then, at the final meeting, city officials told the advisory committee about the state Supreme Court case and how it might affect the park's funding and construction. The committee members walked away disappointed.

"It was very clear to see that it wasn't the bank's decision," said Hatchett. "It wasn't the Housing Authority, it wasn't the city, it was clearly beyond anybody's control."

Committee member Bernadine White-King said she's heard "not a thing" about the park since.

Meanwhile, Skatepark of Tampa general manager Ryan Clements, who visits the park every few weeks, said he's seen more skaters there now that the surrounding housing is gone.

"About a year ago, people starting noticing, 'Wow, nothing has happened here,' " he said. "Then the housing market took a dive and we thought, 'Oh, okay, I guess we have the Bro Bowl for a while.' "

• • •

When Fred Hearns retired as the city's Community Affairs director last year, Perry Harvey Sr. Park was one of the last projects he was excited about. A local historian, he took joy in attending a year's worth of meetings to decide the park's fate.

He now runs a bus tour that takes tourists from cruise ships at Channelside on a ride through downtown, Tampa Heights and East Tampa. He shows them where slaves are buried at the Oaklawn Cemetery, where cigar factory workers gathered in Ybor City, where Billy Graham first preached at Franklin and Fortune streets.

Then he stops at Perry Harvey Sr. Park and talks about the freed slaves, about Ray Charles and the Cotton Club and 1960s activism.

"I always talk about the plans and what's supposed to go there, but we just don't know when that's going to happen," Hearns said, although he acknowledges that, given the city's budget and rising costs, "I don't know if the plan is still viable or realistic."

The tourists look through the bus windows and sometimes catch a glimpse of a skateboarder or two gliding around inside an old, cracked skate bowl.

Plans for Perry Harvey Sr. Park in Tampa go nowhere 12/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:42pm]
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